Against All Odds, Festival Takes Flight
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
As dusk settled over Neahwa Park, Carol Mandigo wasn’t sure what to expect when she flipped the switches to turn on the Festival of Lights.
What she saw were cars lined up as far as Main and River streets, waiting their turns to be driven around the 37 displays of holiday lights and decorations set up around the park.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mandigo said. “I had no idea it was going to be as popular as it was.”
The event – it began last Friday, Dec. 18, and continues every night from dusk until 10 p.m. through Sunday, Jan. 3 – was a spin-off from the traditional First Night celebration, which, along with the Hometown Fourth of July, was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“Everyone on the board was really sad that we had to cancel,” she said. “We got together to decide if we should do something for New Year’s or just bag the whole year. No one would blame us if we didn’t put on an event.”
But Mandigo had seen the Lights on the Lake event in Liverpool, the Syracuse suburb, and although it cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to have it professionally put together, she pitched the board an idea: “What if we asked the community to put up displays?”
The board agreed, but she still wasn’t sure if the community at large would embrace the idea. “Then it would be lame, and that would be terrible for us,” she said.
She reached out to Ben Guenther at Five Star Subaru first to see if he would sponsor a display. “He was all about it,” she said. “And once I knew he was backing us, I knew we had something special.”
The Otsego County Chamber of Commerce sent out a call for displays in its newsletter, and soon, the emails started pouring in. “I was shocked,” she said. “I really thought we were going to have to do it all by ourselves.”
Several of the displays were dedicated to John Hayen, who in 2017 hung 23,500 lights in his home and yard on Tilly Avenue, surpassing the record set by Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” He passed away in November.
Bassett Healthcare employees’ display paid tribute to front-line workers, while the Brooks’ BBQ display featured Santa surrounded by chickens.
There were logistical challenges to overcome, including how to power each display without tripping circuits. “I’ve been living out in the cold from morning until night,” said Mandigo. “We had to figure out how to power everybody, how to run all these cords and how to protect the displays.”
And then came the snow.
Overnight snow on Thursday, Dec. 17, dumped 29 inches of powder on the city, burying all but the tallest displays. “People were worried that it wouldn’t work,” she said. “But no one ever said to postpone it.”
Instead, the groups came out to shovel out their displays. “It was a miracle,” she said. “We were still tripping circuits, but by 3:30 p.m. on Friday, we were ready to go.”
The event opened at dusk with entertainment, including Cosmic Karma Fire, Mike the Juggler and Santa Claus.
“Santa went to each car and asked the kids’ names and what they wanted for Christmas,” she said. “And the kids were so excited to see him.”
Even Mandigo donned a set of light-up wings to welcome visitors over the weekend. “I had so much fun seeing the kids faces light up,” she said. “That’s what First Night is all about.”