Before (and After): Toledo Zoo presents the 34th Lights Before Christmas

. December 2, 2019.
Photo Courtesy of Toledo Zoo
Photo Courtesy of Toledo Zoo

Nancy Bucher has worked on the Toledo Zoo’s Lights Before Christmas event since the beginning. Literally.

The curator of horticulture for the Zoo, Bucher has worked on every single Lights since the event first took place in 1986. She even remembers the very first thing the Zoo bought to prepare: Ten extension cords. She laughs at the thought, given how even way back then they would need a lot more than that.

“We had miles of extension cords,” Bucher said. “And the very first year was surprisingly very, very successful. And we knew we had something that people wanted.”

Now as the event celebrates its 34th year, the Lights have become an annual tradition for families in the community— a development that Bucher takes great personal pride in.

“That’s what I really enjoy about this. I’ve seen kids grow up coming to the Lights show, they come back and now they’re bringing their families,” she said.

The 85-foot Norway spruce— simply called "The Big Tree"— features over 30,000 lights. Photo credit: Toledo Zoo.

The 85-foot Norway spruce— simply called “The Big Tree”— features over 30,000 lights. Photo credit: Toledo Zoo.

A year of preparation

The 2019 edition of the Lights Before Christmas officially began on November 22 with the annual lighting of what the Zoo simply calls “The Big Tree”— an 85-foot Norway spruce decorated with over 700 sets of lights for over 30,000 individual LED bulbs in total. But the event itself is the culmination of a year’s worth of work for Bucher and her staff.

“We have some full-time and part-time seasonal people that have set up lights for many years and are very, very good at it,” Bucher said. “In round figures, it takes about 400 hours of part-time seasonals to put it up, and I can’t even tell you how much for our full-time employees, because I don’t track that very closely, because they’re doing both horticulture and this work.”

The eight full-time horticulturalists that the Zoo employs begin putting lights in trees as early as August, with all-hands-on-deck, full force construction beginning after Labor Day. The end result is over one million lights illuminating the zoo, featuring over 200 images forming animal shapes, as well.

Christmas in July

Kim Haddix has been the Assistant Director of Communications for the Zoo for only a few years, but has been deeply involved in the marketing of the Lights since day one.

“It’s amazing to me that it is a year-round thing for people in this area. As soon as you mention that you work for the Zoo, they say, ‘I love the Zoo! And Lights Before Christmas— we go every year!’ I hear that all the time. Everybody has a Zoo memory, but everybody has a Lights Before Christmas memory, too,” Haddix said.

It was Haddix who inadvertently gave Bucher more light work to do. Haddix had thought of a funny April Fools’ joke— Lights Before Christmas in July. So she put the announcement out on social media earlier this year, where, much to her surprise, over 50,000 people fell for it.

“And so then we said, holy c—, we actually have to do this! So, we did it, and now poor Nancy is putting up lights even earlier, and it’s probably going to become an annual tradition. People wanted it so badly, and we said, we’re going to give it to them!”

Lights Before Christmas began with a relatively small display of 60,000 lights in 1986. It has now grown to over one million lights being put up annually. Photo credit: Toledo Zoo.

Lights Before Christmas began with a relatively small display of 60,000 lights in 1986. It has now grown to over one million lights being put up annually. Photo credit: Toledo Zoo.

Curating a tradition

So now, Bucher has to plan to arrange a small display in June for the summer event, in addition to planning, constructing, taking down, cataloging, repairing, recycling and so on for the official Lights event every year. And woe is the curator who approves a change that the public doesn’t approve of.

“If we change the color of a tree, oh my gosh, if the people don’t like it, we’ll hear about it until it goes back to that color again,” Bucher said.

She speaks with a smile in her voice, though— one that belies the joy that everyone connected to the Lights Before Christmas feels at bringing the Toledo community one of its most beloved shared experiences.

“This is the place where you come to be together as a family, to be present,” Haddix said. “It gives you a chance to be immersed in the lights, put your phone down, actually talk to your family, spend some time with them. It’s something that generations have done together, and we just want them to keep doing that.”

$20 for non-members, $17 for children and seniors.
Zoo members get unlimited visits Monday-Thursday and one free weekend visit during the event.
3-8pm | Every day until December 31
Toledo Zoo, 2 Hippo Way
419-385-5721 |