The year 2013 was an important point in the evolution of Cochrane Light Up, and Stephenie Shelstad can look back with pride in her role since that time.
After a decade of helping to revitalize and reinvent Light Up, Stephenie says it's time for some fresh blood to lead the cherished community event. In those 10 years, it has grown into a solid three hours of community fun in the Historic Downtown drawing upwards of 15,000 people.
Stephenie's tenure, first as co-chair, then chair, ended on the high note she sought. November 26 marked the return of an in-person event. Judging by the crammed streets, it was long awaited.
"I think it means so much to the community," says Stephenie. "It always was a big community event, but it's become much more important, and I know that after canceling it for two years, and the grief I received. It seems it's not Christmas until Cochrane Light Up happens."
The icing on the cake for her was being able to further expand the Christmas light show with synchronized music. It began in 2020 when a live event couldn't be held. It has been added to each year since, thanks to Cochrane Home Treasures and the Town of Cochrane.
"This has been a dream of mine ever since I started," she says. "The fact that it actually came to life was very exciting."
The growth of the show looked to be stalled until Cochrane Home Treasures stepped forward with donations in both 2021 and 2022, something she will forever appreciate.
She's hopeful it will continue to expand throughout the downtown core.
"My vision for this light show is that it eventually comes down 5th, goes across Grande, down Centre, and then encompasses this whole circle, so it's like a drive everybody can do," she said in 2021 after receiving support from Home Treasure. "Every year we just need to put a little bit more and a little bit more to get it bigger and bigger, and it will bring people to Cochrane to show them our lovely town."
By the way, that show continues until the end of this week. It's about 10 minutes in length and runs twice an hour starting at 5 p.m. The last show starts at 9:30 p.m.
It was by chance Stephenie became involved in Light Up after being approached by Marni Fedeyko while their daughters were attending dance classes together in 2013. They both went to a Light Up meeting and by its end had become the co-chairs and started working to bring their ideas to life. Upon being elected to town council, Marni believed it was best to back away from the chair.
Even before then, Stephenie was no stranger to community events.
"My mom and dad always did events in my hometown in Newfoundland, so I was always part of it growing up. Did I think it would turn into this? No."
In 2013, they increased the hot dog order from 2,000 to 5,000, added more firepots, and introduced a new children's tent. Other memorable additions were an ice sculpture of Kelly Davis in the Centennial Plaza and horse-drawn wagon rides on the side streets.
A unique event builder was a partnership created with Sugar Britches, a one-time main street business. Residents had a chance to sample specially-made fudge and hot chocolate and vote for their favourites. The winners were declared the official "Cochrane Light Up" brand. In truth, all of them were yummy.
They also added a charitable component to the night with the proceeds from an online silent auction.
The pair continued to add more activities over the years, some remain, and some were discarded. Street performers have become a staple of the event, as well as performances by Indigenous dancers in Centennial Plaza. Fireworks have capped off the evening when conditions and finances permitted and this year included a pyrotechnics show, both courtesy of an additional $10,000 donation by Home Treasures.
From 2014 until 2019, the rooftop of the former Rexall location on 1st St. W. became a focal point. An aluminum Christmas Tree was painstakingly assembled each year, then officially lit on Light Up and remained a beacon until Ukrainian Christmas.
Sponsorships were key to growing the event, and there have thankfully been several major ones over the year.
"It got to the point where people would reach out to me instead of me reaching out to them, which was nice. I mean, some years were more difficult than others, but you always managed to get what you needed."
The town, too, has contributed more over the years to the grassroots event.
One way to bring that growth into perspective is a hot dog count. This year, 12,000 were ordered. 10,000 more than in 2012.
"We've pretty much maxed out what you can do in three hours. There are only so many hot dogs you can give out in three hours."
When it started, ketchup, mustard, and sometimes relish garnishes were available. Now, the businesses and groups serving the dogs have become more creative with their condiments and giveaways in a friendly one-upmanship contest.
Stephenie believes the trophies introduced have provided some inspiration.
"The trophies have become very coveted and it's hard to pull out of a business's hand when you go back and collect it after the year they get to keep it. Hopefully, that gets to continue, because it brings out the comradery and gets everybody going."
Stephenie believes getting the results she sought was driven by her determined nature.
"I don't take no for an answer at all, and I pretty much do whatever it takes to persuade someone to change their mind. I've always been able to do it. This year, it was a little more difficult, but I did in the end get what we wanted. My only aim has always been to make it a fun and safe event for everyone to enjoy."
Stephenie says many aren't convinced she's stepping back.
"People don't believe me, including my husband, that this is my last year, because I say that every year."
This time, though, she says she means it.
"I've worked hard to organize it, to make it easier for someone else to take over."
"I just hope it continues and the magic continues. I think it needs new blood; it needs to evolve again. It's getting to the point where the space is far too little and it needs to be bigger."
The volunteer Light Up board will be meeting in February. The town has expressed interest in becoming further involved, says Stephenie, but they aren't expecting to make a decision until March.
"I wish whoever takes it over the best of luck. I look for new flair in it, but I just want it to continue more than anything. It's definitely a Hallmark moment in Cochrane. That's how a lot of people referred to it this year; it makes you feel like you're in a Hallmark movie. It's got that feel to it, that's for sure."
Light Up has been a Cochrane tradition since 1984 and for over three decades has been made possible by countless volunteers and businesses stepping up to help stoke our Christmas spirit.