Places full of holiday spirit in Madison

In search of the holiday spirit? Head to Madison, but don’t let mall Santas, early-bird specials and tinsel-tinged storefronts saturate the day. When I need a yuletide boost, these six places provide it in a one-of-a-kind way.

Holiday Fantasy in Lights at Olin-Turville Park, entrance at John Nolen Drive and Lakeside Street: Drive into the park and revel in the 30 much-larger-than-life displays – some animated, and linger for a look at the downtown Madison skyline, from the park’s Lake Monona shoreline.

Santa golfs, a rocking horse tilts and carolers stand at attention because of the volunteer work of the National Electrical Contractors Association and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 159.

Some of the outdoor exhibits are three-dimensional. Look for the glow of the State Capitol: One version is outlined with holiday lights; the dome of the real thing is illuminated from afar.

The 21-year Fantasy in Lights tradition began with 12 displays in 1989. Now the 15,000-plus lights all are LED, which use about one-fourth the energy of traditional light bulbs.

Tallest is the 40-foot Memory Tree, whose shine comes from bulbs sponsored by individuals, to commemorate people they love. Go to to add a name to the banner that hangs near this hilltop tree.

Donations to lessen the display’s energy, materials and maintenance costs are collected upon leaving the site, or checks can be sent to: NECA/IBEW, 1602 S. Park St., Madison, WI 53715.

The lights stay on from dusk to dawn, through Jan. 3.

University Avenue Holiday Lights
, near the intersection with University Bay Drive: More than 35,000 lights – most in neon-bright colors – jazz up 228 arbor vitae trees that line a city block, just west of downtown. The result is a near-solid mesh of brilliant hues, in place until the second week of January.

The splash is thanks to Dr. Jack Kammer, founder of the Center for Cosmetic Dentistry. The now- retired dentist decided in the early 1980s that he’d rather see trees than a fence along the railroad tracks near his office.

So he planted the arbor vitae, added lights 16 years ago and now spends about $10,000 per year for two months of holiday shine. What a dazzling legacy.

“The Story of the University Avenue Holiday Lights,” a folksy, 49-page book about the project, sells for $20. Proceeds will keep the light show going long after Jack can finance it. The book is sold at University Bookstores in Madison and through Center for Cosmetic Dentistry, 2275 Deming Way, Madison, WI 53562-5527 (add $5 for postage/handling).

Tax-deductible contributions to the light project can be sent to Shorewood Hills Trust Tree Fund, c/o M&I Bank of Hilldale – Private Banking, 401 N. Segoe Rd., Madison, WI 53705.

Executive Residence tours, 99 Cambridge Rd.: One of the most elegant homes in Madison is the governor’s house, and first lady Jessica Doyle greets visitors during 30-minute, public tours on seven days this month. Admission is free, but bring a donation of one or more new or nearly new children’s books.

Volunteer guides chat about building history. Local musicians provide background entertainment. Expect six decorated, Wisconsin-themed indoor trees: Tribute to the Troops (military personnel), Bells to Biotech (biotech firms/products), Nigerian Noel (the state’s Nigerian heritage), Caroling in the Counties (ornaments to showcase all 72), Featuring Family Farms (self-explanatory) and Holiday Hits (contributions from children, about favorite movies).

Tour dates/times are 10 a.m. to noon Dec. 14 and noon to 2 p.m. Dec. 9, 10, 12, 16, 17 and 19. For more: Reservations are required for groups of 20 or more; call 608-246-5501.

State Capitol tours, 2 E. Main St.: Wisconsin’s grand headquarters for state government – and Madison’s most beautiful beacon – looks especially festive at this time of year, thanks to the 2,400 lights, 1,400 handmade ornaments and 700 feet of garland that gussy up a 40-foot balsam fir that this week was hoisted into the Capitol Rotunda.

Free, guided building tours occur several times daily. Time your visit right, and you’ll also hear holiday music. Concerts by high school and other choirs occur at noon Dec. 11; 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Dec. 12; 1 p.m. Dec. 13; 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Dec. 19; 1 p.m. Dec. 20; noon Dec. 22; and 8 a.m. Dec. 27. An especially big crowd converges for the annual holiday pageant, 4:15 p.m. and 5:15 p.m. Dec. 6.

For more about tours: (click on “visiting”), 608-266-0382.

Holiday Express, Olbrich Botanical Gardens, 3330 Atwood Ave.: A diverse mix of large-scale model trains weave around poinsettia plants, villages of gingerbread and decorated trees until the end of the year, thanks to the work of Wisconsin Garden Railway Society members.

The railroad buffs bring replica circus trains, steam trains, bullet trains and whatever else they care to share. This typically includes intricate garden props – water fountains to light fixtures – all constructed to scale. Area bakers add elaborate gingerbread houses to the route.

Classify it as a festive indoor fantasy that is a hit with both children and adults. Admission: $3 for adults, $2 for ages 3-12 years. For more:, 608-246-4550.

Quivey’s Grove, 6261 Nesbitt Rd.: Nothing beats the peaceful and homespun mood of this mid-1850s mansion and livery stable, both of which are on the National Register for Historic Places and decorated with strands of popcorn and soft lighting for the holidays. An underground tunnel connects the two buildings.

This used to be Madison’s countryside. The aura remains pleasant and special, even though a motel and animal rehab business have popped up nearby.

Entrees at Quivey’s are named after important people or places in Wisconsin history. Think down-home cooking with a gourmet spin. Dinner comes with a basket of warm (usually fruit-filled) muffins.

For more:, 608-273-4900.

What destination – accessible to the public – puts you in the holiday spirit? At least two people who respond before Dec. 20 (names drawn at random) will be rewarded for playing this little game.

You get extra points for posting your reply on the “holiday spirit” discussion thread of the “Roads Traveled” Facebook page.