It started as a way of honoring timeless traditions at a time when life was anything but normal. It has since morphed into an annual tradition of its own.
Naturally McHenry County, the Huntley-based organization that promotes the virtues of living, working and playing in the area, was faced with a challenging set of circumstances in the final months of 2020, as much of everyday life remained at a standstill.
“We’re the tourism bureau for McHenry County. When you think back to 2020, there wasn’t a lot of tourism happening,” Kristine Austin, Sales and Marketing Manager, says. “We tried to come up with something to engage the community during the holidays.”
Kristine and other staffers within Naturally McHenry County decided on a holiday-themed competitive outdoor decorating event known as Light Up McHenry County.
“A lot of events at that time were canceled, so we wanted to come up with some sort of activity that people could safely do and still get out and enjoy the community and the holiday season,” Kristine explains.
The event is based on a relatively simple, straight-forward premise: Interested property owners–including residences and businesses across McHenry County–can decorate their exteriors with holiday décor and ask to participate in the competition.
A variety of participating properties have been named winners in past years. Among them are Cherry Tree Inn Bed & Breakfast in Woodstock, Santa’s Land of Imagination in Crystal Lake and the Shulfer Light Spectacular in Crystal Lake. Winners are named in different categories, such as most inflatables, best local business and other unique defining characteristics that might set one display apart from another.
The initial enthusiasm was high enough that Kristine says the decision was made to bring Light Up McHenry County back in 2021, as traditional in-person holiday festivities were re-emerging.
“For the most part, it was the same event,” she says of year two. “Local homes could sign up to be a part of the list of houses that were decorated in the county. We put together a map and people were able to go out and pick their favorites. We awarded a few different prizes.”
Light Up McHenry County begins in early November and runs through late December. Winners are announced shortly before Christmas, while holiday festivities are still in full swing.
Participation in the event grew in year-over-year comparisons. In the initial rollout, there were 40 property owners who wanted to spread holiday joy by asking for inclusion on the map. In the second year, there were 43 participants.
Public participation was strong, right out of the gate in the inaugural year, but did dip a bit in 2021; however, Kristine says the data is understandable given the larger-scale factors in play.
“We’d been keeping an eye on the traffic on our website,” Kristine reflects. “There were definitely a lot of people. In 2020, there obviously was a lot of traffic and interest.” Speaking to last year, Kristine says, “Traffic on the website was a little bit slower, just because there were more things happening.”
“It will be interesting to see what happens this year,” Kristine says as planning on the 2022 iteration got underway.
In year two, as pre-pandemic life began re-emerging, Naturally McHenry County tied other local businesses, events and venues to Light Up McHenry County. Downtown Crystal Lake’s Santa House and the Woodstock Opera House were among the amenities receiving the spotlight alongside the new light show in promotions.
Kristine says the intermingling of different amenities throughout the area is another opportunity to share the virtues of making a daytrip, or even a weekend getaway, to the region.
As Light Up McHenry County settles into becoming an annual event, the old adage of, “if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it,” is holding true for planning in 2022 and beyond.
Since the response has been so positive, Kristine says display participants and spectators should expect a similar, if not identical, format as the third annual extravaganza gets underway.
“I don’t foresee any major changes,” she explains. “People can expect more beautiful light displays.”