The first major snowfall of the season in Utah Valley didn’t stop roughly 200 people from heading out to see the Salem City’s annual Pond Town Christmas celebration.
However, without the resourceful work of city employees and those who started the free-to-the-public event, the celebration might not have been able to stay afloat for the past 17 years.
“We’ve had other cities call us and ask us how we do it,” said Steve Cox, Salem city building official inspector. For many of Cox’s 22 years working for the city, he held the parks and cemetery superintendent position, which largely oversees production of Pond Town Christmas. “Usually when they find out the hours that are involved, they tend to back off.”
Pond Town Christmas began many years ago as an idea of Salem native Brent Hanks during a trip to Phoenix, Arizona.
“There was a little pond and they had a Christmas tree on it, and I noticed that it reflected on the water,” said Hanks. Having grown up right along the shore of Salem Pond, he thought the idea could be nicely replicated on the city’s pond, and so he approached Randy Brailsford, who was Salem’s mayor at the time, with the idea.
“He told me no,” said Hanks with a chuckle. However, after some time had passed and Hanks had more discussions with Brailsford, the mayor finally agreed they would try his idea.
“So, we built a few trees,” said Hanks. The first trees were handmade from sewer pipes to create a raft, and rebar in the shape of a tree to hold the string lights, according to Hanks.
“It’s not fancy,” said Hanks, “You look at it in the daylight and you think that’s not very cool.”
Some others also had a skeptical opinion, at first. “I remember we got them out on there and there were some guys in town that thought we were crazy,” said Hanks.
However, at night, things were a totally different story.
“At night, you get all that reflection, and if the water’s still, it is gorgeous,” said Hanks. “For every foot of light up the tree, you get two and a half feet of reflection in the water.”
To fund the handmade efforts, Hanks went door-to-door to local businesses to raise money. “I went around and I told guys that if they donate $500, they would have a sponsorship for three years.” said Hanks. “It just went from that.”
Hanks was later elected to Salem’s City Council, and oversaw the event to make it better each year. Eventually, Salem city took over the event itself.
“It has evolved over the years,” said Steve Cox, Salem city building official inspector. “We’ve learned quite a bit on the process as far as the easiest way to get it on the water, how to secure them, and how to make them safe.”
Over the years, the city has slowly phased out the original pontoons used in the first Pond Town Christmases for new and improved displays.
“We got a company, Process Service Group, that was willing to build us some pontoons and kind of take our design and build them out of aluminum so that that they’re a little more durable,” said Cox.
However, most everything is still done by hand in order to keep the event cost effective and free to the public.
Besides the lights themselves, everything — from the floating pontoons and tree structures, to the lighted figures near the community center, to the Nativity scene at the south end of the pond — is built by hand primarily by approximately eight city employees headed by the parks department. Putting the event together begins at the start of October, and is done incrementally until the lights illuminate Salem Pond starting on Black Friday.
During the lights-on celebration, Salem’s Youth Council hands out hot chocolate and doughnuts, Salem Hills High School’s choir sings carols, and Santa Claus himself arrives by firetruck to flip on the pond’s lights. Cox explained that weather can play a factor in how many people come out for the event, but said that there’s consistently at least a few hundred people to bring in the holiday season.
“Some of the residents that have backyards that lead to the pond put trees up and stuff and it’s kind of a little community effort – everybody’s pitched in at some point or another,” said Cox. “Not too many people have this opportunity to do lights in a setting like this. It’s a great event to bring everyone together.”
Salem’s Pond Town Christmas is on display every evening from from 5:30 to 11 p.m. through New Year’s Day.