Friends of ours dragged us (well Kristin did the dragging, I was the dragee) to Redmond Sunday night for their annual holiday extravaganza, Redmond Lights, which, in all honesty, is little more than the Redmond Town Center Stimulus Package dressed in holiday lights. With Microsoft as chief poo-bah. Or Santa. Or God. I couldn't tell.
The reason I say dragged me there is because I have a stubborn inability to see past the commercialized outer layer of these tradition-as-promotion events. I'm not easily fooled, nor do I want to be. Now, maybe I was still just in a foul mood after the Seahawks found yet another heart-rending way to lose a game with a last-minute turnover, but I'd rather spend a night on the Island of Misfit Toys than put on a pretend smile and join in the quote-unquote merriment of this scripted direct-marketing campaign, otherwise known as Redmond Lights. I struggle to "just enjoy myself" in these situations. I place too much value on authenticity for my own good, sometimes.
In all fairness, I imagine even back in the time of our fathers -- the folks who walked uphill both to and from school in shoes with no soles -- that the local town holiday festivals were even then sponsored by Woolworth's or the local pharmacy. I understand that somebody has to pay for the generators powering all of those lights and speakers. I get that, but I'd like to believe they at least tried to hide their intentions back then.
Allow me to elaborate...
We find a parking spot near the Claim Jumper restaurant at Redmond Town Center and promptly get in line near Ruby's Diner to board the shuttle (yellow schoolbus) to the City Hall complex. There are carolers dressed in Dickensian fashion and free hot cocoa (sponsored by Ruby's) and candycanes for the kids.
Redmond has a many-miles long paved riverside trail called the Sammamish River Trail and the mile or so portion from City Hall back to the Redmond Town Center area was lined with electric luminaries, rope-lights, lights displays, and assorted carolers. We make our way past a small Hawaiian ensemble playing island-themed Christmas tunes, past the Mexican mariachi band on the too-loud stage, and over to where the tables at the head of the trail were. We saw people with cups and figured we'd be able to get some hot cocoa for the stroll. After all, it was 40 degrees outside.
That would have been nice. The table was sponsored by Whole Foods and instead of a cup of hot cocoa, we were handed a cup of their new organic butternut squash soup. And a coupon.
Up ahead someone is handing out blinking red lights for us to clip onto our jackets or hats. We continue on down the trail, following the electric luminaries that light the way to a bell choir lined up under a bridge. They were really good and we stood, under the bridge, listening for a couple of tunes. Up ahead was an equally-talented barbershop quartet singing old-timey renditions of Christmas classics.
Onward we marched, finally coming to a large manger-esque construction where a church group was handing out cups of hot cocoa and pamphlets. Heavy on the cocoa, hold the literature. Thank you. The choir was taking a break so we continued on, pausing ever-so-briefly to see the goats in their corral -- Live-action nativity at eleven. Be there! -- and continued on.
Considering the title of the event -- Redmond Lights -- the amount of lights on display and the creativity and scale of those displays was rather abysmal. And what was there hardly justified the noise of the generators. They could have very easily handed out a walking map to different neighborhoods where there were sure to be far better and more abundant lights displays. The portion of the Sammamish River Trail that was used for the event had the lights displays spaced nearly 100 yards apart, and few if any were more than a single yard decoration.
Back at the Redmond Town Center shopping mall things got really interesting. We immediately came across a massive line of people. What sort of holiday cheer could be garnering this many people, we wondered. The answer? Free sushi. Cause nothing says "Seasons Greetings" like a piece of rice-covered raw fish.
The great thing about the friends we were with is that they too value their time and, like us, would rather pay for dinner than wait 20 minutes in a line for consumable swag. So we were able to bypass the many, many lines of people waiting for the free samples of food being handed out (with coupons and flyers, naturally) for each of the RTC restaurants.
The main intersection at RTC had a giant stage and a number of musical acts playing. The stage bore no holiday decorations, no wreaths or lights to speak of. I guess because the decor would have obstructed the public's view of the massive Microsoft banner hanging behind the musicians. Just a theory... Either way, we watched a Jamaican steel-drum band play "Under the Sea" in floral-print Caribean shirts and couldn't help but marvel at the oddity of standing outside, at night, in 40-degree weather, listening to calypso music. At a holiday festival.
We heard a Japanese taiko drum group in the distance, on the corner in front of Macy's, and continued our trek down the road in their direction. And here, at last, we found not one, not two, but three things that truly made the night worthwhile. First, I love taiko drum groups and this one was fantastic. The four of us had no qualms about listening to this group play for several songs. Secondly, they were playing right near the Panera Bread and REI booths and we were able to load up on free (excellent) chocolate chip cookes and cofffee, as well Chukar Cherries from REI while listening to them. And no, I certainly didn't mind the $20 off coupon for REI.
But lastly, perhaps the best part of the whole night, was watching this little two-year old boy as he watched the taiko drummers. He would spend a couple minutes running around in circles and dancing up a storm, then would sit down as close as he possibly could and just stare at the drummers with complete concentration. Then he'd get up and dance some more. The Japanese taiko drummers maintain very stern faces while playing and their routine is almost dance-like. I have no idea how they didn't start laughing or at least crack a smile watching this little boy, but they had to be enjoying it. I know we were.
And maybe that right there is why towns and companies do this sort of thing. Sure, it's easy for a jaded childless thirtysomething like me to find the flaws in promotional events like this and wish things were a bit more genuine -- and I imagine few towns collect as much tax revenue as Redmond does and I'm sure they could, if they wanted, be able to afford to put this on without such heavy reliance on stores and restaurants hawking their wares -- but seeing the little kid dancing was enough of a reminder that even I could realize that kids don't see the coupons and the banners and the blatant attempts to sell, sell, sell. They just see the lights, taste the food, listen to the music, and know that it all means one thing...
If only we could all still be young enough to believe in Santa.