Decorators make the season merry

The annual birth of the poinsettia tree at The Mall in Columbia is actually in May. Vendors begin growing plants specially sized for the iconic blooming tower that has been a Columbia tradition since 1972.

Andrew Akard, senior operations manager at The Mall in Columbia, coordinates the towering tree. He said, many people don’t think to ask, “but it’s a consuming thing for our people and our industry.”

By late summer, as 840 red and cream-colored poinsettias of multiple heights and sizes are beginning to flourish, Akard coordinates with vendors on the timing of delivery, and begins testing and evaluating the custom-built, nine-level, 20-foot steel frame that holds the plants.

“The iteration we are now using is about ten years old,” Akard said. Stored on mall property, it is always constructed on a Sunday night into Monday morning.
Akard and his crew bolt together the frame, partially made of recycled hexagonal lamp posts from Baltimore. It’s centered on a long middle stem that splits into three pieces. Then: “four large I-beams are the base, while the stem holds arms with trays, which hold rings, which finally hold the plants,” said Akard. “It’s not like this is something that was in stock at Amazon.”

A custom-made drip irrigation system feeds each of the plants through thousands of little hoses that are also tested each year. “We had a clog in a hose last year,” said Akard, “and we had to hand water almost all the plants.”

The poinsettia tree will stay up for seven or eight weeks before it’s dismantled and, five months later, seeded again for the magic to reappear.

Who plugs in the 
Symphony of Lights?

About four weeks before the Symphony of Lights opened this year, Brad Canfield, owner of Event Consulting and Management, and his crew were fastening the very first lights to metal frames at Merriweather Park in Symphony Woods.

Over those four weeks, it takes a crew of 15 people working eight-plus hours a day to install the entire display.

The crew begins with the biggest displays – including crowd favorites like Mother Goose and the Toy Factory – then follows with about 100 more animated and stationary holiday light creations, made up of approximately 300,000 bulbs.

The last lights to be installed are the pathfinding ones that guide your car, the same ones that have guided more than 2 million people through the Symphony of Lights over the last 22 years, raising more than $8 million to benefit Howard County General Hospital.
Although the setup team follows a map of where the different displays go, most of Canfield’s crew has been setting up the Symphony of Lights for more than 15 years.

“They could probably set it up blindfolded,” said Canfield. “We used to switch out displays with other light shows, but people would miss their favorites.”

Beginning last year, the Symphony of Lights transitioned from incandescent lighting to LED fixtures, and Canfield estimates that the entire display now uses 80 percent less power. “Also, we were replacing up to 30-40,000 lights a year,” he said. “Now, with the LEDs, hopefully it’ll be more like 100 a year.”

As for the off-season? The Symphony of Lights is stored in four semi-trailers on the property of Costello Construction, and employees of Event Consulting and Management work at Merriweather Post in operations and concessions.


In downtown Laurel, the seemingly effortless holiday decorations that grace everything from Main Street to the neighborhood centers actually require quite complex timing and coordination, explained Joanne Hall Barr, director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Laurel.

“Our facility and grounds crew handles exterior lighting, our recreation staff works on the interiors, and the Department of Public Works decorates the light poles,” she said, “and we all need to be ready to go at the same time on December 1.”

This year was even more challenging, given that the first Saturday in December – when the parade was held and Santa arrived at two different locations – was on Dec. 1.

“Santa always arrives for Breakfast With Santa at the Partnership Activity Hall then at the Armory for the parade,” said Barr.

With the goal of being even more inclusive over the years, the Laurel decorating team has added decorations for other holidays such as Hanukkah and Kwanza.

What’s the secret to setting up decorations all over town, at the same time, inside and outside? It’s being organized when you take everything down each year, said Barr. “If you don’t wrap up everything in an orderly fashion, it’s a complete mess!”