If you’re heading Downtown next Saturday, wear a warm coat and maybe a pair of sunglasses, and set your alarm for 6:08 p.m.

That’s when thousands of holiday lights are scheduled to light up the heart of the city, kicking off a season of festivities called “Shine On Madison.”

Shine On Madison is a new marketing campaign from the Madison Central Business Improvement District (BID), running from Nov. 18 to Jan. 7 to welcome people Downtown to shop, eat and play. It kicks off with the main event Saturday — a brief and light-hearted lighting ceremony — when all those bulbs go live with the larger-than-life help of Bucky Badger, Maynard G. Mallard, Santa and even Dr. Seuss’ the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

Earlier that day, the Madison Night Market Winter Carnival opens at 2 p.m. Some 44 vendors will be on hand along the 100 block of State Street and nearby Capitol Square, selling gift items, holiday décor and more. Modeled on the successful night markets that took place in Madison this summer, the outdoor marketplace runs til 8 p.m.

There will be a lot more happening, too, making Saturday an occasion to try to be in two or three places at once. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will hold its annual MMOCA Art & Gift Fair through much of its own building and the adjacent Overture Center, with the spotlight on juried artworks, handmade items and gourmet food gifts for sale.

Madison Children’s Museum will offer free admission Saturday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., with lantern-making activities and the unveiling of an illuminating installation on the museum’s rooftop.

Classical guitar master Sharon Isbin will perform with the Madison Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. in Overture Hall; the a cappella group The Madhatters will perform in Capitol Theater at 7:30 p.m. Shows are also happening at the Orpheum and Majestic theaters. Dreambank and the DIY studio Revel, both located Downtown, will feature craft workshops during the day.

Many Downtown businesses also plan to throw the switch to illuminate their own lighting displays at exactly 6:08 p.m. (and yes, the time was picked in honor of the city’s area code).

Big holiday kickoffs have worked in other cities, and their success helped spark the idea for something like Shine On Madison, said Tiffany Kenney, executive director of Madison’s Central Business Improvement District.

“Milwaukee has a parade and fireworks,” she said. “I don’t think we’re there yet, but we need to celebrate.”

Color and light

Funded mostly with a $65,000 grant from the Madison Community Foundation, the lighting for Shine On Madison will include multiple special displays to brighten winter nights.

Each display will have its own theme, said Zach Zweifel, co-owner of the Middleton-based company Traditions Specialty Lighting Professionals, which is designing and installing the lights in public spaces. Among them:

  • The Frosty Flicker Forest located by the Downtown Madison Visitor Center next to Lisa Link Peace Park in the 400 block of State St.

“We’re going to have around 20 live Christmas trees, all a different color, so people can walk through them,” Zweifel said. “It’s going to be this really neat, colorful forest. People can get a cup of hot chocolate nearby, and use that as a nice photo opportunity.”

  • The Festive Forum, located in the area known as the Forum, next to Ian’s Pizza on State Street. A 16-foot tree will be lit there with “a lot of technology,” Zweifel said. “We can program it to do a lot of different things with the lights.”
  • The Groovy Grove, located between Teddywedger’s and the Wisconsin Historical Museum. Lighted trees in that area will respond to sound, so when people clap their hands, stomp their feet or play music, the lights will dance along, Zweifel said.

Nighttime lights also will brighten the length of State Street to the end of King Street, he said.

Shine On Madison was coordinated with input from businesses and other organizations, Kenney said. Overlapping Saturday’s outdoor market with MMOCA’s indoor annual winter art sale was an “intentional choice.”

New name for

MMOCA fair

MMOCA renamed its annual event the MMOCA Art & Gift Fair (formerly the Holiday Art Fair) to better reflect what that show is about, said MMOCA’s director of events Annik Dupaty. Nearly 100 booths will have items for sale — each with a story behind it.

“With the variety of artists that are represented, you’re going to be able to shop for paintings, prints, photographs, jewelry, wearable fiber, glass, ceramic works — which are both functional and beautiful,” Dupaty said.

The MMOCA Art & Gift Fair, running from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, also will feature live music, dance performances, roaming characters from Madison Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” craft activities for families — and the return of the popular holiday selfie booth, where visitors can pose for fun (or the family holidaycard).

The annual event is an important fundraiser for the admission-free museum.

Tickets to the MMOCA Art & Gift Fair are $6 ($5 if purchased in advance at mmoca.org); children under 12 admitted free. For those who want to be indoors at 6:08 p.m. Saturday, MMOCA also will feature its own special lighting event inside its glass-walled lobby at 227 State St.

Vote for favorite

window displays

BID hopes visitors will flow in and out of Downtown museums, shops, restaurants and other venues throughout the weekend. (An initial plan for a winter beer garden was scrapped after area bars and restaurants said they would prefer getting that business, Kenney said.) The lights for Shine On Madison will be aglow through the season.

Shine On Madison will include a window display competition from Saturday through Nov. 26. Participating Downtown businesses can decorate their windows to out-wow their neighbors, and visitors can rate their favorites.

Ballots will be available at the Downtown Visitors Center at 452 State St., near Lisa Link Peace Park.

Flyers listing seasonal events, shows, restaurants, bars, shopping and more in Downtown Madison are also available from BID.

The comprehensive list can be found online at shineonmadison.com. Saturday’s lighting ceremony will happen regardless of the weather, Kenney said.

It’s a great way, she said, “of embracing our winter identity.”

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the amount of the Madison Community Foundation grant supporting Shine On Madison.]


Gayle Worland is an arts and features reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.