The Lights at Ken Lake Combine Music, Light, and Community

christmas lights olympia
Chris McGough and a large group of friends and family help The Lights at Ken Lake shine.


By Megan Conklin

little caesars logoIt all started when Chris McGough was just a kid – and liked to help out his grandma by putting up her Christmas lights for her. From this small act of kindness, a hobby was born.

Come December, this hobby tends to outshine all other aspects of life when McGough’s brilliant, original, and very, very bright home based Christmas display begins to take shape. “Well, the work actually begins in early November,” he admits.

Sitting down with the McGough family gave me a sneak peek into the hours of work and fun required to make The Lights at Ken Lake shine each season. And boy does it take a village. For the past eight years, Chris and his wife Sandy and their four children plus a very large group of family, friends, neighbors, and sponsors (not to mention thousands of committed fans) spend countless hours creating, refining, and enjoying the “almost entirely hand-made” light display that has made Olympia’s Westside neighborhood of Ken Lake a tour of lights destination spot.

christmas lights olympia
Chris McGough and a large group of friends and family help The Lights at Ken Lake shine.

McGough was mentored as a Christmas light decorator by Bill Foley, a pioneer in the field who’s passing in 2012 saddened all who admired his amazing and innovative Christmas display on Lake St. Claire each year. Inspired by Foley’s ability to combine music and lights in a synchronized fashion, McGough began to build his holiday display that now twinkles with over 40,000 lights.

The draw for me to this incredibly family friendly light display each year is found in the high quality, yet entirely homespun feel behind the show. For example, the music that is broadcast from speakers on busy nights, and always found on the radio at 98.5 FM, is carefully selected by the McGoughs and programmed to play in conjunction with the flashing lights. “It takes about twelve hours to program just one song with the light display,” Mcgough explains.

And these songs are special. This year, family friend and singer songwriter Brian Jansen produced a version of the song “What Child is This?” with McGough’s eight year old daughter, Lilly, on vocals. The song is absolutely lovely and definitely my favorite in the twenty minute show.

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A vintage, authentic sleigh is on hand for photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“This could never happen without this amazing group of people,” McGough is quick to point out, gesturing to the large group assembled to talk about the project. From his sister Tammy Dorn and her husband Chris, to good friends Paul Rumbles and Robert Jackson, they all spend hours and hours bringing the yearly display to life much to the delight of the surrounding community. “And I have great neighbors,” McGough adds, “really kind and supportive people.”

The McGough family seems to put a premium on kindness themselves, as the main motivation behind the display is clearly the money and food it generates each year for the Thurston County Food Bank. “We make between $1,800 and $2,000 each year in cash for the Food Bank,” says Sandy McGough, “and that makes it all worthwhile.”

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The money and food generated for the Thurston County Food Bank is a major motivator for The Lights at Ken Lake.

Because the display costs the family quite a bit to run, and because all donations go directly to the food bank, McGough has secured a few sponsors to help offset the costs in recent years. This year, Michael Fritsch of Big Tom’s Drive In and Dave Littleton of O Bee Credit Union have partnered with McGough to help support both the remarkable holiday display and the Thurston County Food Bank.

And if the lights plus the sweet, original music isn’t enough to lure your over to this impressive display, perhaps the promise of free, professional quality photographs with Santa and Mrs. Claus on an authentic wooden sleigh will do the trick. Mr. and Mrs. Claus are actually Al and Patti Lovely and they have been volunteering their time to bring an extra measure of joy to the children visiting The Lights at Ken Lake in recent years. Family friend, Benjamin Paris, a professional photographer, snaps photos of the Clauses and tykes for free and then uploads them to his website where they can be enjoyed and copied. As the Santa  photo opportunity demonstrates, this particular display is not just a “drive by,” but rather encourages community interaction.

Be sure to check out The Lights at Ken Lake website and Facebook page for details about when Santa and Mrs. Claus will be visiting.  You can find driving directions here.

The McGough home at Ken Lake is all lit up and ready for guests, and with over 208 individually powered, lighted items in the yard, it is a display worth visiting – maybe even more than once. “I like to tell kids that there are a bunch of little elves in the garage flipping the switches to make the lights turn on and off,” Chris McGough laughs. And while the truth is a little more technical and complex that that, there is definitely something magical about The Lights at Ken Lake.



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