Where the Holiday Lights Are Shining in Portland, and Where They’re Not

Some marquee events are canceled, but plenty of Christmas lights are aglow this year.

By Margaret Seiler November 24, 2020

Zebra holiday lights at Oregon Zoo 2019 ZooLights

A zebra display at the 2019 ZooLights at the Oregon Zoo. This year’s show, open November 22 through January 10, can be viewed only from a car.

The lights went out on Broadway this year. They blinked off on the Las Vegas Strip. Most movie theaters’ projection bulbs still sit cold and dark. But this pandemic isn’t going to grinch us out of holiday light extravaganzas. Maybe not quite as many grand displays are happening, maybe some have to be viewed through a car window, maybe you can’t sit under a heat lamp with people you don’t live with and pass a flask around while you take them in, maybe there’s no grand tree-lighting ceremony, maybe you’re asked to scan a QR code to donate instead of putting cash or canned goods in a bin for a fundraiser. But lots of holiday lights are switching on nonetheless.

Here’s a sampling of where to get your LED fix, and which usual favorites have had to go dark.

Almost Normal

A menorah at the 2019 Winter Wonderland at PIR

A menorah at the 2019 Winter Wonderland at PIR

It’s nearly business as usual at Portland International Raceway’s Winter Wonderland. The bike, walk, and dog-walk nights are canceled, all ticketing is online, you can’t bring food donations for Sunshine Division to the event, and clown cars are definitely banned (no more than six people per vehicle in 2020). But the 12 Days of Christmas–themed display around the racetrack is otherwise unchanged. It runs from November 27 through January 2.

“We are so happy to bring you a bit of normal in this crazy year.” So says an October Facebook post for the Christmas Ships Parade, an annual free event with distancing already built in. Planning meetings with volunteer ship captains and decorators have been on Zoom and the usual dockside meet-and-greets are canceled, but the Willamette and Columbia River fleets are still ready to launch on December 4. Find the schedules here, and observe proper masking, distancing, and group size protocols when watching from the riverbank. 

The route map for ZooLights 2020

The route map for ZooLights 2020

Anyone who’s stayed a little too long at ZooLights (or had tired complainers with short legs in their group) knows the evening’s final walk up the hill to the exit can be tough. Avoiding that slog might be a silver lining of the drive-thru version on offer from the Oregon Zoo for 2020. (Avoiding the overserved bros at BrewLights, the accompanying beer fest that’s canceled this year, is another.) The route winds along the zoo’s wider paths down to Elephant Lands and back up, passing through animal-themed light displays (the animals themselves are not out for viewing) and taking 25 to 35 minutes. ZooLights runs through January 10 (closed December 25), with timed tickets available up to seven days in advance. Instead of the usual $10–20 per person, ZooLights 2020 is $40–65 per vehicle. More info and tickets here.

And a shout-out to the unstoppable neighborhood Clark Griswolds, the ones whose basements and garages are so full of light strings and other decorations they can’t fit anything else. The ones whose electricity bills take a significant jump this time of year. The ones who hit the clearance sales in January and load up on new stuff they then have to store for 10 months. These heroes break up the humdrum and create tiny opportunities for joy. (Let’s also give a shout-out to their patient neighbors.)

Limited Offerings

Pittock Mansion is closed during the freeze, so its animal-themed “Critters Make Merry” holiday exhibit is going unseen for now. Check for updates on timed-ticket availability after reopening.

In Silverton, the Oregon Garden’s usual holiday extravaganza is very scaled back, and on offer only to guests of the Oregon Garden Resort this year. 

Lights Out

The Grotto’s choir-packed Christmas Festival of Lights is a no-go this year. The grounds are closed during the freeze, but the gift shop is open. Fans of the usual holiday display can buy Lights of Hope ornaments, made from “made from lights which once shone in the darkness, bringing light and warmth to all”—an amazing euphemism for burned-out bulbs. 

The Peacock Lane community announced the cancellation of the holiday display on the avian-nicknamed segment of SE 40th Avenue between Belmont and Stark, due to both “regulations regarding large gatherings, and our concern for both the health and safety of visitors and Lane residents,” according to an October 15 Facebook post. (If you can’t go a year without a Peacock Lane-esque neighborhood display, just drive 45 minutes south in Keizer, just off I-5 near Volcanoes Stadium, the Gubser neighborhood’s Miracle of Lights event runs December 4–26.) 

The Miracle of a Million Lights at the Victorian Belle Mansion in North Portland’s Kenton neighborhood is also canceled this year. 

A whale in lights at Shore Acres State Park in 2018

A whale in lights at Shore Acres State Park in 2018

Organizers of the annual light show in the gardens of Shore Acres State Park, near Coos Bay, announced the cancellation of the 2020 event all the way back in May, when planning would have begun, “due to the uncertainty of COVID-19 and its potential risk to the health and safety of volunteers, visitors, and park staff.” If you’ve never been, add this road-trip destination to your Oregon bucket list for another year.