NOTE: Due to COVID-19 prevention measures, the Night of Lights looks different in 2020. Learn more about touring our traditional holiday light displays here.
The holidays are a big deal in Fort Wayne, and we generally start our festivities early at the annual Night of Lights celebration on Thanksgiving eve. The current Night of Lights tradition is nothing new, though. Fort Wayne’s love of the holidays goes way back to the Wolf & Dessauer Department Store. Yes, a department store!
Night of Lights Tradition in Fort Wayne, Indiana
History of Wolf & Dessauer Holiday Traditions
Beginning in 1928, the Wolf & Dessauer Department Store displayed holiday animated windows that were revealed every Thanksgiving. According to Jim and Kathie Barron, authors of Wolf and Dessauer: Where Fort Wayne Shopped, “any given year, you would see Santa feeding his reindeer, ice skating raccoons and elves jumping ropes” (Barron, p. 64). Each and every year—and every season—the window displays would be redecorated revealing the latest advertisement themes to customers.
The window displays drew people far and wide, and “as far away as fifty miles” (Barron, p. 69). But, that was not good enough. In 1937, the Wolf & Dessauer Santa and His Reindeer and Merry Christmas Wreaths were introduced to the holiday window display revealed in November! Made of plywood and more than forty thousand lights, these large additions were displayed at the corner of Calhoun and Washington. They could have rivaled the displays in larger cities like New York and Chicago (pp. 69-71)! That’s a BIG deal.
Holiday Tradition in the 21st Century
In 2021, residents and visitors will again enjoy a taste of the bygone era, and enjoy the restored Santa and His Reindeer and the Merry Christmas Wreath at the crowd favorite event, HolidayFest Featuring the Night of Lights. This year, in lieu of the traditional Night of Lights, locals can tune in to WANE15 at 7pm for a televised special walking viewers through the history of the iconic downtown holiday light displays. The downtown holiday displays will remain lit until New Years Day 2021. Learn more about the 2020 festivities and tour the downtown lights on your own with this easy map.
Although the displays no longer appear side-by-side at the corner of Calhoun and Washington, visitors and residents flock to Main Street to enjoy the lighting of Santa and His Reindeer on the side of the PNC building, and the corner of Calhoun and Wayne to catch the lighting of the Merry Christmas Wreath on the side of the I&M building.
Plus, be sure to explore other downtown displays this season with the Holiday Window Decorating contest! Inspired by the historic Wolf & Dessauer window displays, downtown businesses and storefronts reveal their own window decorations on the eve of Thanksgiving, as entries in the contest. The public can walk around downtown to browse the window displays, and vote for their favorites. This year's contest theme is "Merry & Bright." The Holiday Window Decorating contest will take place in 2020, kicking off on November 25. Visit the website for more information.
Celebrate the Season with HolidayFest
Don't forget to enjoy many of the other HolidayFest activities and festivals like the Botanical Conservatory’s Oh? Christmas Tree! Holiday Exhibit, the History Center’s Festival of Gingerbread, or the Embassy Theatre’s Festival of Trees!
*Barron, Jim and Kathie, Wolf and Dessauer: Where Fort Wayne Shopped. The History Press, 2011.
*Fort Wayne Historical Society, The Wolf & Dessauer Shopping Experience. The History Center. http://www.fwhistorycenter.com/vex4/index.htm. 2 Nov. 2016.
This post was originally published in November 2016 and has been updated. Last Updated: October 2020