By Mary Connell, The Woodlands Township
A Brief History
Many communities have traditions that are unique to them, and The Woodlands is no different. One of the longest-standing traditions in The Woodlands is the Lighting of the Doves, an event that signals the beginning of the holiday season with a message of peace on earth.
In recent years, the Lighting of the Doves event has attracted upwards of 15,000 residents and visitors to play in snow, participate in a festival, enjoy traditional and international performances on two stages, cheer as Santa Claus arrives on a Waterway barge and view with delight as the darkened Doves magically come to life when Santa flips the switch.
Signs of the Doves can be found all over The Woodlands: lighted three-dimensional doves at major intersections and more lighted doves at Town Green Park and gracing the Lake Robbins bridge. Depictions of doves can also be seen on blue and yellow banners along the major thoroughfares.
But how did it all begin?
The story of how the Doves became part of The Woodlands hastens back to the first decade of development. According to local newspaper articles, in early 1982, former Woodlands Corporation President Ed Lee visited Hong Kong, and while dining in a restaurant there, he saw a giant street display of colored lights that outlined different animal shapes. The one he liked best was a large bird that appeared to be soaring toward the sky: a dove, a universal symbol of peace.
When Mr. Lee returned to The Woodlands, he arranged for three 60-foot-tall Doves of Peace to illuminate the Grogan’s Mill/Woodlands Parkway intersection for the holidays. The site was the only major crossroads in the community at that time, and the Doves were the Corporation’s gift to the community, placed where they could be enjoyed by all.
The first lighting was held on December 5, 1982. Timing of the event has varied over the years, from the first Saturday in December to Thanksgiving weekend and now to mid-November. Early ceremonies included musical entertainment provided by local church groups, concerts by the McCullough High School Band and York Junior High Chorus, handbell choirs, a cappella groups, local choirs, speakers presenting messages of hope and peace, and the arrival of Santa Claus on an antique fire engine, accompanied by the high school cheerleaders who passed out candy to the crowd, a sing-a-long, heralding trumpets and finally, the “flipping of the switch” to illuminate the Doves. The Doves then illuminated The Woodlands’ largest intersection throughout the holiday season.
For several years, including the first year, merchants at the Grogan’s Mill Village Center held a celebration following the Lighting of the Doves. Stores were open late, and residents bustled in for hot chocolate, carol singing and holiday cheer. Hayrides shuttled residents from the center to the lighting site for the ceremony, and then back to the shopping center. Being a much smaller community with only two villages, probably a few hundred attended at most.
Mr. Lee passed away in 1986, but his gift of the Doves has remained with the community every holiday season ever since. The Woodlands Corporation (developer of The Woodlands at the time) underwrote the celebration until 1993. At that point, The Woodlands Community Association took on the responsibility of organizing the celebration for the community.
With the construction of The Woodlands Parkway overpass in 1995, there was no more room for the Doves or the event, and the Doves needed a new home. That year, the event moved to Lake Robbins, for a new event, the Lighting on the Lake. It marked the beginning of change for the Doves. Santa arrived in a red Mercedes convertible, a local television anchor arrived by helicopter, and the doves reflected their peacefulness over the lake that could be seen from I-45 and by those at the mall, while the ceremony took place on the Ring Road bridge, just in front of Landry’s restaurant.
More changes for the Doves came in the years that followed. The 60-foot-tall birds needed expensive refurbishing and repairs. More construction in the Lake Robbins area meant they could not be placed at their previous location. And so…the doves were sold to another organization, the Town Center Improvement District, who took on the cost and organization of the event.
The three two-dimensional doves grew to nine three-dimensional doves that graced the new Lake Robbins Bridge. The event itself localized in the Town Center which had become a growing gathering place. A loud whoosh and sleighbells then signaled the arrival of Santa Claus in a large, colorful sleigh, accompanied by several elves and drawn by Clydesdale horses. Now, this was magic. More doves appeared at various intersections, including some placed by the Community Associations of The Woodlands.
The location for the event eventually settled in Town Green Park and along The Woodlands Waterway(R), where it is still held today. The Town Center Improvement District managed the event until it was transferred to The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau, and then to The Woodlands Township Parks and Recreation Department, the managing entity since 2016.
Many people–community leaders and staff of The Woodlands Corporation and its successors, including The Howard Hughes Corporation, The Woodlands Community Association, The Woodlands Association, The Woodlands Commercial Owners Association, The Woodlands Community Service Corporation, The Woodlands Fire Department, Town Center Improvement District, The Woodlands Township, public safety agencies, CISD teachers and students, especially in the music programs, contractors, entertainers and agencies, members of The Woodlands Symphony, village volunteers, retirement homes and many more– contributed over the years to making the Lighting of the Doves a true community tradition for The Woodlands. (Yes, for those who remember, there were some additional doves in other Woodlands locations, some special holiday trees, and for a while, an international festival, but that is another story!)
While the small community gathering in 1982 has grown to a much larger event over the years, the message has remained the same: Peace on Earth. And still, just as Santa whispered slowly to the crowd at the Lighting on the Lake in 1995, just before the lighted Doves and a little bit of fireworks heralded the moment, “Peace…is very…magical.”
May the Doves and their message of peace continue to shine.
Many thanks to The Woodlands 50th Anniversary Partners:
FOUNDING – Howard Hughes
LEGACY – Woodforest National Bank
HERITAGE – Waste Connections Inc.
GOLD – Entergy Texas, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital
SILVER – SVN|JBeard Real Estate, The John Cooper School
PRODUCER – The Woodlands Township