A Very Merry French Lick Christmas

Kicking off the 50 Days of Lights festivities, the annual tree lighting ceremony featured an animated projection light show for the first time ever at the French Lick Springs Hotel on Nov. 16. The process of decorating the resort, as well as the West Baden Springs Hotel, for the holidays begins in early November.

Story by
Olivia Ingle
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump

An hour in to decorating for Christmas at the French Lick Resort in early November, and Floral Manager Kim Holland’s crew hit a snag.

They always decorate the lobby at the resort’s French Lick Springs Hotel first, and after carting in the 14-foot-tall Christmas tree, they soon realized the room’s intricate, crystal chandelier, which serves as a tree topper and electric source for the tree, had been raised too high earlier in the morning. It hung just inches above the tree.

Knowing the lobby’s tree is one of the first things guests see when they visit the hotel, Kim knew it had to be perfect. It’s also a popular photo op at the resort around Christmastime.

So, Kim called her friends in the resort’s maintenance department, and Engineering Maintenance Electrician David Mark Ratliff came to the rescue.

Kim and some of the 10 resort employees helping her decorate that morning watched as David Mark raised himself to the ceiling in an electric lift. He then used a come-along to adjust the chain that attached the chandelier to the ceiling.

In order to use the main chandelier as a tree topper and power supply, it was lowered a few inches to connect with the Christmas tree in the lobby of the French Lick Springs Hotel on Nov. 5.

It was a careful process. One misstep, and the entire, 300-pound piece of resort history could come crashing down. He cranked and cranked the come-along, lowering the chandelier until it rested perfectly atop the half-assembled Christmas tree. As he did so, a crystal fell to the floor.

“That’s the second crystal that’s been broken,” said David Mark, who began helping with Christmas at the resort about 10 years ago.

He admits creating a winter wonderland is a lot of work. “But we enjoy it,” he said.

Kim added that Christmas at the resort is so much work for her — albeit fun work — that sometimes her Christmas decorations at home fall to the wayside.

“Last year was the first time I really decorated at home since I’m always here,” she said, adding that her kids were home for Christmas last year, giving her reason to.

She and her crew then got to work putting the remaining branches on the lobby’s pre-lit tree.

She started decorating the resort for Christmas when it reopened in 2006. She had two trees that year — the one in the hotel lobby and one in the event center. Now, there are so many trees, when asked how many, she said, “Gosh, I have no idea.”

The resort adds some new Christmas decor pieces every year, and the exciting, new purchase this year was a 40-foot tree for the resort’s front lawn.

“It’s gotten so large that the grounds team does everything outdoors,” Kim said of Christmas-decorating at the resort. Ratliff said the resort’s roof is decked out in 1,700 Christmas lights that are up year-round, but are only turned on during the 50 Days of Lights. Six timers control them.

Kim’s domain is inside. In addition to the French Lick Springs Hotel, she also decorates the West Baden Springs Hotel and its atrium, which includes a 40-foot-tall tree that is assembled and decorated with a lift.

Once the branches were on the lobby’s tree that day in early November, Kim donned a pair of gloves.

French Lick Resort Floral Manager Kim Holland assembles the Christmas tree in the lobby.

“Now, the fun stuff has begun,” she said as she began to fluff the tree.

As she worked, a woman walking past said to her, “We look forward to it (Christmas at the resort) every year. We’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

The decorating crew added gold leaves (called sprays), and gold and red ornaments to the tree, creating a majestic look when coupled with the garland accents added to other parts of the room.

Nello Fragassi from the resort’s food and beverage department helped with decorating that day. He’s worked at the resort for five years, but it was his first time helping with Christmas decorations.

“I got recruited,” he said. “It’s normally my day off, but they had me scheduled. Everyone says it’s a lot of fun.”

That day marked the first of about a dozen decorating days before the resort kicked off its 50 Days of Lights with the annual tree lighting on Nov. 16. The decorations stay up for 50 days, from the tree lighting through early January. Then, it takes Kim’s team about four days to take everything down and pack it away for next year.

All the decorations are stored in more than 150, large wooden crates — they’re much taller than this Herald writer — and stored in the resort’s annex. Each crate is labeled with what’s in it and where the decorations are displayed at the resort.

“It has to be organized with the time we have [to decorate],” Kim said.

The hotel’s lobby is just one of many areas at the resort decorated for Christmas.

After the tree lighting ceremony, visitors pose for photos with the Christmas tree in the lobby of the French Lick Springs Hotel on Nov. 16.

While Kim’s crew decked out the entire resort with garland, Christmas trees and other touches in the days leading up to the tree lighting, they also worked on some of the decor guests come back to see time and time again, such as the Christmas village at the French Lick Springs Hotel.

While it features scenes like a bakery, toy emporium, a candy shop and reindeer stables, it also includes Santa Claus himself from 2-5 p.m. on Saturdays.

Near Santa sits a gingerbread replica of the French Lick Springs Hotel, which was designed and created by Dalyn Roney, a pastry chef at the resort. In past years, Dalyn has created a gingerbread house for the village.

French Lick Resort Pastry Chef Dalyn Roney created a gingerbread model of the French Lick Springs Hotel, complete with candy windows.

Ed and Nancy Smith of Huntington visited the resort for a couple of nights earlier this month after hearing how spectacular it was at Christmastime. And it didn’t disappoint.

“This is just a beautiful area, and really puts you in the holiday spirit,” Nancy said while admiring the Christmas village.

Another new feature of the 50 Days of Lights at the resort is the Lights Take Flight projection light show that plays on the facade of the hotel at 6:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Jan. 5.

Jeremy Hopkins, the resort’s assistant audio visual manager, worked on the show for months, using projection mapping.

“It’s allowing our building to tell a story through the technology of projection,” he said, adding that the projection showcases the resort, but also enhances “the holiday for our guests and the community.”

Using lights, music and graphics, the show tells a story about Santa and Sprudel, a West Baden gnome.

“It’s a unique offering for our guests, an experience usually only found at the largest theme parks,” Jeremy said.

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