Many families have a long-standing tradition during the winter holidays of bundling up the kids up at night and driving around the neighborhoods known for their stunning displays of holiday lights.
Traditionally, this pretty much has been limited to a small area, as people don’t necessarily know about the top light displays in other communities, or even on the other side of their hometowns.
But starting last year, Jefferson County residents had the opportunity to check out some of the top displays of lights and decorations around the county, via the cooperative “Deck the House” program sponsored by several local parks and recreation departments, chambers of commerce and the Jefferson County Tourism Council.
Now in its second year, “Deck the House” promises to be even bigger, with practically every community in greater Jefferson County signed on.
The idea was the brainchild of Brooke Franseen, Fort Atkinson Parks and Recreation director, with vital assistance from Makayla Thoma, former Fort Atkinson parks and recreation administrative assistant and program coordinator.
Thoma since has left for another position and Franseen is on temporary leave, but the program is as strong as ever — even more so in 2021 than 2020.
Chad Holpfer, who happens to be Jefferson’s parks and recreation supervisor, was among the first Fort Atkinson residents to sign up last year, and he thought the idea had possibilities that reached beyond his hometown.
“What do you think about taking this regional?” Holpfer asked his Fort Atkinson counterparts as the program got its start in 2020.
Soon, several other area communities had signed on, including Watertown.
Randy Wojtasiak, director of the Watertown Parks and Recreation Department, said his department saw a great response to last year’s event, and they hoped to see similar enthusiasm this year.
“The hard part was getting the program off the ground,” Wojtasiak said. “This year, we can hit the ground running. It should be really easy to build from here.”
Brett Ketterman, Fort Atkinson recreation supervisor, said he was incredibly pleased with the response to last year’s event. The homeowners got a kick out of all of the new visitors coming through their neighborhoods to check out the light displays, he said, while families were able to expand their light tours beyond the familiar.
This year, the program has spread throughout almost the whole county. Participating communities include Watertown, Johnson Creek, Lake Mills, Jefferson, Fort Atkinson, Cambridge, Waterloo, Ixonia and Whitewater.
Last year, a total of 75 homes participated in the project, with all of the participating properties mapped out on the internet for the easy access of holiday light-seekers throughout the region.
The free program aimed at getting people into the holiday spirit in a safe way while the pandemic still was at its peak.
This year, with vaccines available for everyone age 5 up and COVID-19 numbers down, there are more in-person opportunities, but the holiday lights provided a really nice option for families seeking a special outing on their own time and individuals wishing to get in the holiday spirit while staying out of crowds.
Moreover, the positive feedback that came out of last year’s Deck the House project convinced organizers that the event could become a fun tradition throughout the area, said Holpfer.
“We got some great comments online,” Holpfer said.
“People are excited to see all of the lights,” the Jefferson parks and recreation supervisor said, noting that he has heard of some families bundling kids up in their pajamas and driving around as a special holiday excursion.
Last year’s event page showcased photos of all of the lighted properties and invited comments from visitors. Meanwhile, the interactive map of all of the participating properties garnered more than 20,000 views, Holpfer said.
In addition, the interactive map shows not only the residential properties participating in the contest, but also the major community light displays, such as the one at Jones Dairy Farm in Fort Atkinson or Rotary Waterfront Park in Jefferson.
People can sign up their properties for this year’s event starting Nov. 22. Again, registration is free for participating properties and, of course, area residents can choose to visit as many of those properties in a drive-by fashion for no charge.
For property owners, signup is online via a Google form. It’s simple and easy to use: people just have to enter the homeowner’s name and the address of the property and upload a picture of the fully lighted property.
That information gets shared on the event Facebook page once the list is complete.
The addresses are shared so that as the holiday season progresses, people can drive out to the decorated properties at their leisure to view the lights. People can choose to visit those only in their local area, or drive to all of the area communities to see them all.
Visitors then are invited to vote on their favorites within a certain community. The community winners all receive a small gift in recognition of their status, with a larger prize going to the overall winner countywide.
The lower-level prizes are supported by the parks and recreation departments — and in some cases the chambers of commerce — in the participating communities, while the overall prize is funded by the Jefferson County Tourism Council.
“I’m not sure how much of an economic impact this has on our county, but it does do a great job in showcasing our communities,” Holpfer said.
He said he took advantage of the opportunity to tour the county and its Christmas decorations last year with his own family. His family even established rules to assure that everyone got the most out of the occasion, which follow: 1) Phones away, and 2) Christmas music is playing in the car, but riders get to change the station upon request.
“It’s really nice in that you get to pick the day that works best for you and do it then,” he said.
The registration period for participating homes runs from Nov. 22 to Dec. 5. People can register online at https://bit.ly/jcdeckthehouse21
The viewing map link will be released Dec. 10. From then through Dec. 19, people are invited to view as many homes as they wish and vote on their favorite displays.
After voting closes Dec. 19, the votes will be tallied, and first- through third-places will be awarded in each participating community.
Then, from Dec. 20-24, the top community award-winners will go into the best-of-the-county challenge. Votes will be accepted for that contest through Dec. 24, with the top county prize awarded around Dec. 27.
Winners on the community level will receive special ornaments. First-place winners advance to the overall best-in-the-county competition, sponsored by the Jefferson County Tourism Council.
To follow the event on Facebook, people should search “Deck the House-Jefferson County, WI.” People also can find information on the event on their local community parks and recreation department or chamber page.