What started as a way to brighten up the darkest month of the year has evolved into a grassroots neighborhood effort to keep spreading joy, long after the winter solstice.
Since December, people have been putting up decorations on a popular trail around Cheney Lake in East Anchorage.
Now, hearts of all shapes and sizes, made of ice and dotted with bright red cranberries, are hanging from trees and resting on snowy stumps. Ice luminarias decorated with small purple and red hearts are arranged on the path to a picturesque backyard. Colorful love notes rest under a dusting of fresh snow and lay nestled and protected in the branches of a spruce tree.
Anchorage resident Chantelle Pence came up with the idea to help lift spirits in her neighborhood.
“It’s been a rough year for everyone … the darkness setting in, both the physical darkness and just everyone under the cloud,” she said. “I just felt like, we have to do something.”
Pence created a display outside her backyard gate, which connects to the trail, featuring an ice luminaria and a hand-painted sign that read, “Be The Light,” around the first week of December.
She lit the luminaria every night for a week until one night when she got too busy. As she was getting ready for bed, she noticed the candle was lit.
Eventually she ran into the mystery man who lit the candle that night and the following days.
“I was decorating a tree on the trail ... and I saw, I kid you not, a guy with a white beard stopping at my display and putting a candle in,” she said, likening him to Santa Claus.
Other people would stop for photographs outside her display and leave candles, ornaments and cards, Pence said.
Soon, neighbors were adding lights around the trail, and with that, a “Light up the Lakeside” event took off. It concluded with a simultaneous lighting at 2 p.m. Dec. 21.
“I have lived in Anchorage for five years and I never felt connected to here until this event,” said Pence, who is originally from the Copper River region. “We were all in it. We were all conspiring to light up the darkness.”
The luminaria outside her home remained lit into mid-January as she continued to receive candles left by passersby.
Into the new year, Pence said she felt worried about the division and fighting she saw happening across the country.
“Us and them, and masks or no masks and Democrat, Republican,” she said.
So she decided to keep the displays going and switched out Christmas for Valentine’s Day.
Now, on the edge of the trail by Pence’s backyard, a sheet of ice is propped up in front of a candle and the word “love” is spelled out with twigs from a willow tree, written above a heart made of cranberries.
Pink and red rose petals line the top of her luminaria. Among other items, Pence also added a “Love wins every time” sign to a nearby tree.
A few doors down, neighbor Colette Ravinet began making the love-themed displays as well, even though both women aren’t really into the holiday.
“For me, it was more just the fun of doing something different with luminaria,” Ravinet said.
She makes them every winter and even has some lining her back porch that she lights in the morning to look at as she works from home.
Ravinet found a heart-shaped Bundt cake mold and a few smaller heart-shaped tins and chocolate silicone molds that she used to create her decorations. Unable to find red food dye, she opted for unsweetened red Kool-Aid, which was melting and dripping down the side of the luminarias as the sun pierced through clouds on Wednesday — an early sign of warmer days ahead.
Neighbors have joined in and added more hearts and luminarias along the trail. Pence said she has also noticed more eye contact between people, visits and positivity on the trail. She encourages others to take part in their own neighborhoods.
“There are so many ways that we can create community,” she said. “I met so many people, neighbors that I’ve lived beside for three years now, I didn’t know them. We’re collectively working on something to bring joy to the neighborhood.”
“We’re doing it separately, but together,” she said.