The winter months bring more than a flurry of festivities to Minden, a magical Midwestern town known as “Nebraska’s Christmas City.” Those whose travel plans don’t include eight reindeer and a trip to the North Pole this December may find childhood wonder in Minden, 186 miles west of Omaha.
The main attraction is the “Light of the World Christmas Pageant” at the courthouse in downtown Minden. A reenactment of nativity scenes is performed by 115 locals (regardless of inclement weather) on the north and west sides of the courthouse. This year’s pageant will be performed at 7 p.m. Nov. 30, Dec. 7, and Dec. 14. The show commences with the lighting of more than 12,000 multicolored bulbs strung across the Kearney County courthouse dome and throughout the square.
“You can probably see it from space,” jokes Minden Chamber of Commerce Administrator Kathi Schutz.
Minden’s Christmas lights tradition began in 1915, when an abundance of outdoor lights, originally intended to be used earlier that year as decoration for the state convention of the fraternal organization Grand Army of the Republic, were put away due to harsh weather conditions. City Light Commissioner J.C. Haws found another use for the lights that December: coloring them green, yellow, and red with gelatin so he could cover the dome of the courthouse. He turned on the lights that Christmas Eve, and the illuminated building inspired and awed locals. The citizens of Minden have continued the tradition of covering the courthouse in lights for over 100 years.
In 1946, the Methodist minister the Rev. Art Johnson and townsman Clayton Morey wrote the pageant, dubbing it the “Light of the World Christmas Pageant.”
In 2015, the town celebrated a Century of Lights on the Friday after Thanksgiving with a full day of events, culminating in the official lighting ceremony. The event was so successful, the town started the weeklong event known as the Christmas Traditions Festival in 2016. Shutz explains that the schedule has now grown to include dozens of other activities.
This year’s festival starts the Friday before Thanksgiving, Nov. 22, with Ladies’ Night Out. People are encouraged to come to the town for deals to kick off their holiday shopping. Other activities include local artists at the opera house.
Those who are not interested in shopping can take time off at the Breakaway Bar, which has an event called “Take Over the Taps.” The bar offers televisions with sporting events, and different drink and appetizer specials.
While thoughts turn to turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie the next week, Minden jumps back to the Christmas spirit as soon as the dishes are washed. They hold a lighted Christmas parade the Friday after Thanksgiving, culminating in the new Miss Christmas City lighting of the courthouse for the first time each year.
The next day is the busiest day of the festival. It is known nationwide as “Small Business Saturday,” and thousands will fill this small town to shop and participate in the festivities. Many businesses will offer specials, and the town will have a carnival and other activities for children such as a Polar Express-inspired train to ride, bouncy houses, and a carnival. That Saturday offers the first showing of the Christmas pageant.
The festival continues the next weekend with a Christmas run, and an elf run for kids, at 8 a.m. on Dec. 7. That day also features a pancake feed, local artists on the square and a craft show.
Sunday, Dec. 8 is the end of the official festival and features a community choir concert at 2 p.m. at Westminster United Presbyterian Church. Following the concert is another favorite Minden tradition, the Holiday Tour of Homes. In this bi-annual tradition, local residents embellish the interior and exterior of their houses with Christmas decor and open their doors to the public for tours. Lynette Beahm, chairperson for the Tour of Homes event, says, “It’s all about tradition, it’s all about community, and it’s all about bringing everybody together to really celebrate this season and to remember what this season’s all about.”
The week ends with the final performance of the Light of the World pageant.
Minden complements these traditional events by adding new activities each year. The addition in 2018 was a holiday-themed escape room, which was successful enough last year to be recreated for the coming season. This year, participants in the festival will be able to take part in a selfie scavenger hunt that will guide them on a walking tour through holiday attractions in downtown Minden and other areas of the town.
Laying the groundwork for these festivities usually begins in July, and the planning board relies on local volunteers to help plan, coordinate, and run the events. Schutz says the months of hard work are always worth it for those involved. “Everyone really comes together to make this happen because they know that it’s a showcase of a community that they love and are very proud of,” Schutz says. “Everybody steps up and participates.”
While the official festival ends Dec. 8, Minden is a city to visit any time in December, as the community holds activities throughout the month. Churches have presentations, the library will have a holiday story time on Dec. 12, and community organizations hold special events.
“We called it ‘Seize the Season,'” says Schutz. “Up until New Year’s there will be lots of different things highlighted. It’s just a joy to be able to plan something that you know so many people are going to love and cherish, and families are going to walk away with those memories.”
Visit mindennebraska.org for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.