The Christmas season starts in September when you’re in the holiday lighting business, but electrician and business owner Matt Robinson said Christmas came early for him in a different way last year.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, Robinson was reaching the end of a major undertaking – spreading festive holiday lighting throughout downtown Abilene – and he and his crew were tackling last minute troubleshooting. Specifically, a 24-foot Christmas tree in Everman Park wasn’t quite working.
“It was Friday night, we had nice weather, and so we turned on every light to check it out, and fluff it up, and get it just right,” he said. “There were so many families that happened to be out there, and suddenly it looked like a Hallmark movie. I just sat back and watched people. I saw the excitement on their faces, so many people who were so thankful and asking who had done this. It was an amazing feeling.”
Bringing Holiday Spirit to Downtown
Robinson recalls a similar special feeling when walking through downtown during the holidays in his own childhood, and that inspired him to take on the significant work of providing the holiday lighting for downtown last year.
“As a kid, I grew up going to different events in Abilene,” he said. “One event had Mrs. Baird’s Santa every year, and there was Mother Goose at Rose Park, and of course, Thornton’s window displays. We used to do those things as a family, and it was a dream of mine to do something like that for our community.”
Robinson was born and raised in Abilene and graduated from Cooper High School in 1980. He began working as apprentice electrician in 1981 and started his own electric business – Lone Star Electric – in 1990 with partner Doug Jones. The two bought a Christmas Décor franchise in 2011, and that’s how his connection to holiday lights and décor began.
Last year, when the Abilene Downtown Association was looking for a way to take the holiday feel to a new level, they knew who to call.
“We saw this opportunity with the Abilene Downtown Association, to elevate Abilene at Christmas time even further,” said Alex Russell. “We wanted to celebrate all of the revitalization happening downtown, we wanted to celebrate the holidays.”
Russell knew Robinson and his family and decided to make a big ask.
“I couldn’t believe what I was asking him to do…and what I was asking him to do it for,” Russell said. “But I knew Matt a bit, and his wonderfully kind and infectious reputation preceded him. He jumped all in. He said, ‘let’s do it, we can make this happen,’ so he did.”
Robinson had done holiday lighting for the downtown areas of other cities in Texas – Cedar Hill, Corinth and Prosper – and he found that he loved the creative challenge. The idea of doing it for his own hometown was an exciting opportunity. The Downtown Association’s budget, however, wasn’t quite up to par for what he envisioned.
“It’s hard if you just put a few a lights up,” Robinson said. “It doesn’t look like much. So I talked to my partner about how great a gift that would be to just do it right, to do what it takes. So we put together a plan to do the trees and Everman Park and Minter Park, and a big Christmas tree south of the Convention Center.”
By the beginning of December last year, a 24-foot RGB Christmas tree graced the grounds of Everman Park, changing color in time with programmed music. All the crepe myrtles were decorated, and ground stake lights traced the border of the park. Add to that an 18-foot deer and a modern white Christmas tree on the corner stood 14 feet tall and was decorated with red balls.
At Minter park, curtain RGB lights were hung, trees were decorated, and a Santa provided a perfect photo opportunity.
The 42-foot Christmas tree south of the Convention Center was decorated with ornaments and will be topped only by this year’s plans for a 62-foot tree. This year’s décor will also include a new, yet-to-be-announced item for Everman park.
Last year, the massive Convention Center tree was lit in a festive ceremony followed by fireworks on the Monday after Thanksgiving, kicking off the annual City Sidewalks celebration. The same is planned for this year.
Robinson emphasizes that although he often gets credit, it takes a lot of work from a broader group of people to accomplish the downtown lighting project.
“This is a huge team effort,” he said. “Everyone in this office sacrifices. It’s a team effort from the entire company to make this work. It’s so important how we all work as a family, are willing to sacrifice and see the good that comes out of it.”
Lone Star Electric employees about 28 people, plus a few seasonal employees. They also do the holiday lights for Safety City through the Kiwanis club.
Beyond Downtown: Introducing Winter LightFest
This season, Robinson and his team have tackled another holiday lighting project – one he’s been dreaming up for three years.
“I’ve been traveling and looking at other theme parks, talking to people who have theme parks, and buying product for the past three years. I have warehouses full of it,” he said.
Robinson is partnering with United Way of Abilene to introduce Winter Lightfest, a walk-through holiday theme park located in Abilene’s Centennial Park. The three-quarter mile walking trail will have a 60-foot tree of lights, several 100-foot light tunnels, various interactive Christmas light scenes, a Christmas village, performance areas for local school groups, and a place to enjoy refreshments.
“Matt talked to United Way about creating a walking trail, a paid theme park of Christmas lights, and we sat down and started building on that,” said Evan Simmons, marketing director for United Way. “One thing Matt wanted to do that was important to him was to benefit a non-profit – or several – and that’s why he chose United Way. We were excited to be able to potentially provide this for the community. At United Way, we want people to learn better, earn better and live better, and we think this is part of that ‘live better’ category – something in our community that brings family together.”
Robinson and Lone Star Electric are handling the lighting, while United Way tackles the behind-the-scenes work and customer service experience.
“Abilene is a wonderful community and place to raise a family as I did and I think people are searching for things to do with families, especially around Christmas. The family is together and wants to spend time together. It’s great to see lights and see people in a good mood, happy, having fun together,” Robinson said.
Next year when Christmas comes early for Matt Robinson, be sure to plan ahead.
If You Go: Winter LightFest
Open Thursday through Sunday, Nov. 29 – Dec. 29, 5:30-10 p.m. (last admission at 9 p.m.)
$10 adult admission; $5 child admission (ages 2 and under are free)
20 percent off for groups of 20 or more,
Enter Centennial Park on South 27th Street, between Maple Street and Oldham Lane.
City Sidewalks 2019: Sparkle All the Way
Monday, Dec. 2
Lighting up the City Sidewalks
Ligting of 62-foot-tall Christmas tree on the south steps of Abilene Convention Center, lighting of Minter Park (209 Cypress St.) and lighting of Everman Park (North First Street). “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1948) will be showing on the west lawn of Convention Center. Create Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer ornaments at the downtown library 4:30-5:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Dec. 3
31st Annual FOX 15 Christmas Lights Parade and City of Abilene Tree Lighting
More than 100 festive entries float through downtown at 6:30 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., the mayor will light the Christmas tree inside the Abilene Convention Center foyer, where Abilene ISD students will sing. Downtown dining, cultural venues and shopping stay open late and more than 20 AISD musical groups perform throughout downtown. Festive face painting at the downtown library, 5-7 p.m.
Wednesday, Dec. 4
Merry Merry to Furry Friends
Bring your well-behaved dog or cat downtown to enjoy the spectacular light displays, holiday themed entertainment and to have their pictures taken with Santa. At 7 p.m., The Paramount Theatre and KACU present “It’s A Wonderful Life,” a live radio play. DIY Dog Tug Toy, 4:30-5:30 p.m. at the downtown library.
Thursday, Dec. 5
Caroling All the Way
Fill the sidewalks with the music of the season at 6 p.m. Vocal groups, musicians and hand bell choirs are all invited. Music in Minter Park, downtown-wide singing of “Joy to the World” at 6:30 pm, and “Carols & Ales” at Cypress Street Station at 7 p.m. Design a new sleigh for Santa and a holiday-themed Lego Club at the downtown library, 4-6 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 6
Shpping Spectacular, Christmas in the Garden at the Adamson Spalding Storybook Garden, and the Belsnickel Beer Stroll – meet your guide Belsnickel at the Center for Contemporary Arts, and he will take you to find tasty treasures at venues throughout the Cultural District. Family board games with light refreshments, 4-5:30 p.m. at the downtown library.
Saturday, Dec. 7
Family Christmas Downtown
Junior League of Abilene Reindeer Run 5K and Abilene Philharmonic “A Hometown Christmas”
Lights, Christmas, Action! What other Christmas lights events do you recommend?
By Wendy Kilmer