By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — The city’s holiday season is officially lit.

The annual Festival of Lights switched on at 5 p.m. Friday. The 32-year tradition allows families to drive through a multitude of illuminated displays in Sinnissippi Park at 1401 N. Second St.

“It really kind of kicks off the holiday season for us,” said Tom Luepkes, co-chairman of the festival. “Today starts the first day of the Christmas season.”

This year’s festival has about 100 total displays and more than 400,000 lights. The displays are donated by various business sponsors and set up by a team of about 10 volunteers during three weeks of work.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Ted O’Donnell, co-chairman of the festival. “It’s a very long labor of love, but it’s worth it when we see all the faces pressed against the glass.”

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The annual Festival of Lights at Sinnissippi Park in Rockford runs through Dec. 31. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

The festival was started in 1989 by the late Joe Marino, who also worked for years to deliver a Fourth of July fireworks display to the city each year. Luepkes, Marino’s grandson, and his cousin O’Donnell took over the tradition after Marino died in 2018.

Last year approximately 104,000 people went through the Festival of Lights, a number organizers say was higher than normal because the coronavirus pandemic had shut down so many other events. O’Donnell expects about 90,000 visitors this year.

“Come through once, twice, 10 times, 20 times, you have all December long to come through,” O’Donnell said.

The festival is free to go through. It’s funded by donations and sponsorship.

“The sheer joy and the expression that they have on their face when they come through … that’s really, really all the payment right here,” Luepkes said pointing to his heart. “It makes your heart feel happy.”

Festival of Lights viewing schedule

  • 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Nov. 26-28
  • 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Dec. 2-5
  • 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Dec. 9-12
  • 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Dec. 16-19
  • 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Dec. 20-23
  • 24 hours on Christmas Eve
  • 24 hours on Christmas Day
  • 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Dec. 26
  • 5 p.m. to midnight on New Year’s Eve (last showing)
  • New Years Eve 5pm – 12am (last showing)

Santa Claus schedule

  • 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 26-28; Dec. 3-5; Dec. 10-12; Dec. 17-19
The Festival of Lights in Rockford begins with a 100-foot tunnel of lights. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas.

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