Twenty-eight years ago, the Wyoming Area Betterment Corporation (WABC) decided to put together a Christmas City Celebration to go along with the light display on the first Sunday of December.
In one of their meetings, the corporation figured they should do something with the Christmas lights that had been strung up along downtown since 1937, using the holiday classic “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” as their inspiration by creating an event with all the holiday fixings: plenty of lights, a big tree, carolers, etc.
To say the newly formed group didn’t expect it would be an annual destination for people would be a bit of an understatement. The project, the first the WABC decided to take on, was not meant to be taken all that seriously.
“It was a joke. It really was,” WABC Treasurer Jim Eichorn said. “It started out as a joke and just grew from there.”
Even after the first event, the thought that it would be an annual one, wasn’t a given, but after the response that the celebration got, an annual tradition was born.
The event is a big undertaking, requiring lots of help and volunteers. WABC President Jean Oberbreckling, who’s only been involved since 2010, got involved 18 years in because she was always looking for different ways to get involved and give back to the community.
Oberbreckling said what really surprised her coming into the event after just enjoying it for so many years was how much help it took and how important the work of volunteers were in making it successful. Planning really starts in earnest for the event in September, getting the horses found, making sure Santa has time on his schedule.
“If it wasn’t for the volunteers, it wouldn’t go off,” Oberbreckling said.
In addition to the overall work put together, plenty of work goes into each particular event. Vice President Virginia Pace, who’s been in charge of making sure the soup supper can cater to the hungry public, said things also get fairly insular in preparations. Her focus has largely been on soup prep over the years. To make sure everything is ready to go, soup prep starts the day before.
The celebration offers people the opportunity to check out what the downtown has to offer, with the museum always seeing an increase in foot traffic.
There have been some constants, like the horse rides and the live nativity that was performed until recently and, of course, the lighting of the enormous tree by Santa. How the celebration goes about sourcing their tree on an annual basis can vary.
“It’s wherever you can find them and whatever looks nice,” Eichorn said.
Over the years, however, the event has morphed and changed, and that’s largely by design.
“We try to do something new every year,” Oberbreckling said, with the lighted parade from last year being the latest example.
Not everything works out. There have been many an event done in by the whims of Mother Nature. One of the more unique examples that came to mind was the year they wanted to try bowling, but the cold conditions nixed things.
Some of the odder ideas do come off, however. Case and point: the “Ho, Ho, Ho” for a Hostess Ho Ho, which, like the celebration itself started as a bit of a joke.
“We were looking for something else to do through the evening. I am stuck on the mic and helping with the wagon rides, looking for ways to help the people waiting for their ride to kill time. Every kid loves a mic and wants to be an entertainer. The idea was a contest where they had to say, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho,’” Eichorn said, and it’s gotten some interesting results.
“We just didn’t give [Ho Hos] out for any performance, depending on the person. If we thought they could take the joke, we would boo, make them do it over, until the crowd judged it okay. We have had little kids try to eat the mic, big kids who did it in harmony, some refuse (they are denied their ride), and many who look forward to it and have done it for several years. It gives us a chance to find out where people are coming from as we do quiz them a bit.”
Last year alone, 222 treats were handed out.
The annual tradition is one that has led to plenty of acclaim for the city, getting coverage all across the state and even beyond, with family from Omaha, Neb., notifying Eichorn their town was being featured on the television. Though the pandemic canceled the celebration this year, organizers are looking forward to returning next year.