Since it began back in 1967, Christmas at the Zoo has become a beloved tradition for families in Indianapolis and across the Midwest. The Indianapolis Zoo was the first zoo in the United States to host a holiday lights event, and this year marks the 44th year for beautiful displays, a festive atmosphere and holiday magic like only the Zoo could provide.
The first Christmas at the Zoo was held for 10 days in December 1967 at the Zoo’s former location on East 30th Street. Then-director Earl Woodard had the initial idea to put up some lights around the Zoo and approached the Zoo Guild for help with the execution. At that point, the Zoo Guild did small things to celebrate each of the holidays, like dressing in costumes for Halloween, as a form of community outreach. So the idea to add some lights for Christmas fit in perfectly with that approach and when the holiday celebration opened that year, the Indianapolis Zoo became the first zoo in the country to host a holiday lights event.
For the first several years of Christmas at the Zoo, the Zoo Guild members and their husbands decorated the Zoo and operated the event. Members even handed out candy canes to those who came out, and regardless of the weather, Christmas at the Zoo always attracted crowds. With the leadership of Woodard and longtime Zoo Guild President Maribel Stark, Christmas at the Zoo grew each year as an Indianapolis-area tradition. As former Zoo Guild member Ginger Merkel remembered: “Back then, it didn’t matter how cold it got, the people would still come out to ride the train and walk around.”
By the early 1970s, the Zoo’s staff became more involved with hanging lights in preparation for Christmas the Zoo. Decorations adorned all of the buildings and most of the trees on Zoo grounds. In addition to lights, some hand-made displays were added that were simple plywood cutouts lit by pot lights or flood lamps. As current Zoo Projects Coordinator Keith Schnell recalled: “We were a much smaller operation, and most of it was done by volunteers and two or three of our maintenance staff.”
Although the event went on hiatus while the Zoo was in transition from the old location to the current site in White River State Park, Christmas at the Zoo returned in 1988 and has continued to grow every year since. By then, the Zoo had taken over the event from the Zoo Guild and began purchasing new light displays to replace some of the smaller, older displays.
Over the years, Christmas at the Zoo has included a variety of features — from ice carvers and snow sculptors to professional ballet dancers to train displays in the Hilbert Conservatory — but the lights have always been the main attraction. Several of the iconic light figures date back 20 years or more! However, those older displays will soon be retired in favor of energy efficient holiday LED lights. The multi-year conversion process is nearly complete and is consistent with the Zoo’s other conservation initiatives, including the commitment to use 100 percent green power.
Today, it takes volunteers and staff roughly three months and hundreds of hours to string all the lights and an equal investment of time and manpower to take everything down. In total, work is ongoing for nearly six months of the year to make Christmas at the Zoo a reality.