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The Tech Behind: How many light bulbs does it take to celebrate the holidays in Bellevue?

Smaller in scale but high in Christmas cheer, a small borough just outside of Pittsburgh hosts its own Light Up Bellevue! holiday event. Here's what it takes to make the annual event happen.

Bellevue's Light Up Night tree. (Photo by Heather Weleski)
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In cities and towns around the country, the powers that be like to kick off the holiday season by ceremoniously flicking on the lights of a public Christmas tree.

Philadelphia has one. Regardless of who the president is, for decades, the White House has had one. And for 61 years, Pittsburgh has hosted a Light Up Night filled with decorations and entertainment.

The switch was flipped to illuminate the 65-foot tree placed in Downtown Pittsburgh back in November, but did you know that’s not the only ceremony in the region? Drawing in a smaller, but still enthusiastic crowd just over five miles away from the ice rink, Bellevue, a small borough just outside of Pittsburgh proper, hosted its own combined Light Up Bellevue! and Light Up Avalon! event on Dec. 3.

Where the city was estimated to have used over 100,000 lights, Bellevue’s smaller tree required just 1,000 lights for its 20-foot tree. And although the borough has been hosting a holiday parade since the 1960s, similar to the city, the tree lighting ceremony only goes back to the year 2000.

Susan Stabnau, the executive chair of the Bona Fide Bellevue community development organization helping to put on the event, told Technical.ly that despite the smaller size, planning the borough’s Light Up event still requires hours of collaborative work.

Volunteers setting up the tree. (Photo by Heather Weleski)

“The tree search starts in late summer, early fall, and once that’s worked out, the actual coordination doesn’t take long since we’ve been doing this event for so many years,” Stabnau said. “The same group of committed volunteers — business owners, mayor, Chamber of Commerce — took care of this event for decades. When they retired and shut down the Chamber, Bona Fide Bellevue and our volunteers took over the event with their guidance.”

Although Stabnau wasn’t sure how much electricity it took to keep the borough’s shining bright through the holiday season, she did say that in recent years, the borough switched all the lights over to LED, which are known to use significantly less energy and last as much as 25 times longer, than incandescent lighting.

“Our goal is to be as energy efficient and green as possible,” Stabnau said. “Some of our ornaments are quite old so we fix them up and make them last as long as possible. Our tree has a very classic vintage Christmas vibe. We don’t change it every year, but build on what we have so it’s fresh and interesting but still familiar.”

The org also seeks out inexpensive decorations sold after the holiday season in case there’s a need for them as older decorations wear down.

As the borough’s public works department consists of just six people, they rely on volunteers in part to get the tree in its proper place. Typically, it’s a six-person job that includes a cherry picker.

“Our Department of Public Works schedules a morning to set up the tree, cable it for stability, and a lift bucket is used to install the lights and high decorations,” Stabnau said. “A great group of volunteers delivers all of the ornaments and lights from storage and helps with the lights and then decorates the lower part of the tree.”

During the season, the tree is kept ablaze by keeping the tree plugged in at the New Life Community Church that allows the community orgs to use its facilities.

Cherry picker used to help with set up. (Photo by Heather Weleski)

Last year, the celebration drew in a crowd of 3,000 people, and when Technical.ly interviewed her before the 2022 event, Stabnau was expecting a similarly enthusiastic crowd eager to see Santa, make s’mores, and participate in the ornament making contest. Twenty local businesses also tabled for what’s called the Night Market.

What’s one thing she feels it’s important to know about Bellevue’s tree and annual holiday event?

“The events [are] really about bringing people together to celebrate. I think that so much in the world today is about what divides us, and events like this, these like long-term traditions” counter that, Stabnau said. “We’re always looking to figure out ways to be more inclusive and reach out to businesses and we’ve not done everything that we want to do, but it is a process.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2024 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.
Series: The Tech Behind
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