Dayton’s Tree of Light & Carillon Christmas: ‘It’s kind of magical'
If there’s one sure sign of Christmas in Dayton, it’s the Tree of Light at Carillon Park. Each year, as the holidays approach, 20,000 lights are strung down from the Carillon Bell Tower, creating a giant Christmas tree on the Dayton skyline, just South of downtown, across from the University of Dayton Arena. WYSO’s Jason Reynolds went to see the tree and hear the bells…
Carillons are unique instruments. The bells are stationary. It’s the clappers inside the bells that move. They use a series of wires and cranks, and the keys don’t look like piano keys. They’re large wooden levers, up to two feet long, that are called “batons.” Players strike them with the bottoms of their fists.
This time of year, Dayton’s carillon isn't just a 151-foot-tall musical instrument. It’s also a gigantic Christmas tree.
There are two stories here. The first is how Dayton wound up with a Carillon tower. Then, there's a story of how it gets transformed into a tree of light each year.
Brady Kress, the president and CEO of Dayton History, shared both.
“The story starts in the 1930s when Colonel and Mrs. Deeds went to Belgium on vacation, and there was a large Carillon in the city square in Bruges, Belgium.” Kress said, “Mrs. Deeds loved it. So, when they got back, she was on this quest that Dayton needed a Carillon.”
Mrs. Deeds' name was Edith. She was married to Colonel Edward Deeds, the inventor and industrialist who was CEO of the National Cash Register company and a founder of DELCO.
In order to accomplish her goal, Mrs. Deeds bought three acres of land and started a nonprofit called Educational and Musical Arts Inc. to oversee the process.
The Deeds Carillon was dedicated in 1942, but its first concert was an impromptu event on Christmas Eve in 1941, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
About 70 years later, Brady Kress had the idea of turning the Carillon into a tree of light. This time, it was Indianapolis, Indiana, that provided inspiration. In Indy, they string lights down from the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of the city at Christmas time.
Kress says he wanted to create “a beacon for the Carillon, for the park, and for a large event that we could have here over the holiday season.”
Now, about a decade later, the Tree of Light and Carillon Christmas are holiday staples in the Miami Valley.
Shannon Stanfill says the tree brightens up the city, so she had to bring her daughter to see it up close.
“I love it,” she said, standing under the lights. “It’s my favorite thing to see at the beginning of the Christmas season. They always put it up, and just to see the lights from the highway, it’s absolutely amazing. It’s actually my first time being under it. So, we were excited. We ran up!”
Jenn Johnson brought her family too. “We come here every year,” she said. “My husband and I got married here. So, now we’re all out here together.”
If the lights are bright from the streets and highway, they’re even brighter when you’re standing inside the tree shape, directly under the lights, looking up at the tower. People come and go, taking selfies and dancing around under a carillon.
“It’s really trippy,” said Matthew Maize. “I spin around and it hurts my head when I see all the lights at once.”
Jace Johnson agreed with Maize, saying “It’s really pretty, but like he said, it kind of hurts my head when I look at it too fast.”
The Carillon serves as a beacon for Carillon Historical Park and its annual Christmas event. Inside the park’s gates, there are millions of lights and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
In the print shop, they make customized Christmas cards, with a typesetting machine from the 1800s that turns molten metal into lines of print for a press.
“This was liquid a moment ago, and now it’s a solid bar with raised lettering on it,” Nick Mikel said while working the machine. “It was invented by a German watchmaker named Ottmar Mergenthaler, and this machine is eight times faster than setting type by hand. It enabled the daily newspaper”:
The park has a lot of well-known attractions—like the Wright Brothers biplane and an ornate hand-carved carousel—but the newest addition to the park is a multimillion-dollar railroad that circles the grounds.
Rachael Spears, a living history specialist, said the train is “modeled after the 1851 train that came through Dayton. It was called The Cincinnati.”
She says the train carries about 120 passengers and it goes on a 12-minute circle around the park, through all the buildings, the clock tower, and slides built into the hillside, all of which are lit up, just like the Carillon Tower.
“It’s something that’s just kind of magical,” Spears said, “Right now at Christmas time with all the lights and everything, you get to see a different perspective of the park.”
Carillon Christmas and the Tree of Light run through December 30.
Miami Valley Celebrates is produced at The Eichelberger Center For Community Voices At WYSO. If there’s a celebration you think we should cover next, please let us know.