'Refreshed, renewed, rethought': Morton Arboretum's holiday 'Illumination' is meant for walking

By his count, John Featherstone has designed the holiday lights show at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle for "eight plus one" years.

He puts an imaginary asterisk over the 2020 version of "Illumination." Erring on the side of caution for COVID-19, the arboretum turned the production into a drive-through.

The two-mile joy ride through the arboretum's woods felt like a beacon in a bleak time, or as Featherstone puts it in his British eloquence, a "little island of 'yes' in a sea of 'no.'"

But when you're cocooned in a car, looking through foggy windows, you miss out on the sensory wonders of Illumination.

This season, the tradition returns in its usual format: a milelong trek on foot through trees awash in color. "Illumination" shines brighter out in the brisk night air, but it's not just a visual spectacle.

"When you get up to the top of Frost Hill and into the evergreen collection, to me, it just smells like the holidays, that beautiful pine freshness," Featherstone said.

  "This year, it's great to be back to that verticality and really explore and enhance and lean into the vertical nature of trees," lighting designer John Featherstone said of Morton Arboretum's "Illumination," back to a milelong walking tour. John Starks/

There's pent-up demand for that up-close-with-nature experience. Tickets are sold out for the "Illumination" opening on Saturday night. At the end of October, the arboretum had already sold double the number of tickets ordered by that time in 2019.

"So much of what we do at the arboretum is focused on the relationship between families and nature and finding opportunities for people to connect with nature," Featherstone said.

Creatively in harmony with nature, Featherstone turns barren trees into living, breathing characters with LED lighting. He eschews multicolored bulbs in favor of projections and special effects that train the eye vertically through the crown of forest giants.

"We don't live for lights. We live for light," said Featherstone, making a distinction.

  Morton Arboretum's "Illumination," one of the largest holiday displays in the suburbs, opens Saturday night at the tree haven in Lisle. John Starks/

With Featherstone's background in the music industry - he did the lighting for Duran Duran and Van Halen concert tours - he designs for sound as much as sight. In "Symphony Woods," a fan favorite, lighting fixtures on the ground are synchronized to a soundtrack - beat by beat - and cast bold flashes of color on trees. That used to be one of the select areas along the route set to a musical score.

"Now there's a musical storyline that guides you all the way through the experience," Featherstone said.

Visitors driving through the arboretum in 2020 could tune into their AM radio for an "Illumination" setlist. In a departure from previous years, outdoor speakers are set up along the entire walking trail, playing a wide selection of festive music.

"There's Pan-Asian music. There's Latino music. There's traditional classical holiday music like you're hearing now," Featherstone said on the eve of the opening while a jazzy track from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" could be heard in the background.

  Projections light the tree-lined pathway at the Morton Arboretum "Illumination" holiday display in Lisle. John Starks/

"We want everybody that comes to 'Illumination' to feel that they're welcome because they are, to feel that they belong because they do, and to see something that resonates with them from their culture as well as explore other cultures."

Featherstone also thought about his lighting design through the lens of different cultures. When a vendor in China offered snowflakes and stars as decorations, Featherstone had something else in mind.

"We want what you would put up in your home or your back garden for your celebration of the holidays. And the same thing with our vendor in India," he said.

The result of that collaboration: 150 Moorish and Southeast Asian lanterns shimmer like jewels above a passageway through the arboretum's conifer collection. A new feature this year, "Festival of Lanterns" replaces two dozen glowing chandeliers now displayed in another section of the route.

"There isn't really any area of the experience - even some family favorites like 'Treemagination,' our projection display, or 'Symphony Woods,' this tightly integrated music and light display - that hasn't been refreshed, renewed, rethought," Featherstone said.

  "Treemagination" displays projections on large pine trees at the Morton Arboretum's "Illumination" in Lisle. John Starks/

Once a novelty, "Illumination" drew 88,000 visitors in its first year in 2013. It's been growing in popularity ever since. Nearly 200,000 visitors viewed the display during the 2019 season. Last year, attendance totaled 311,288 for the drive-through experience, which was extended one week due to demand.

"We found even after last year that an overwhelming kind of majority of visitors prefer the walking experience," said Preston Bautista, the arboretum's vice president of learning and engagement.

The arboretum always surveys "Illumination" visitors. What do they want?

"'We want more. We want more and more lights, more ornaments, more of everything.' So we respond to that," Featherstone said.

"Ornament Hill," covered in giant orbs and lawn lights, has nearly doubled in size. Sticks of golden light shoot out of the ground like reeds across a glade, another new scene. But Featherstone never goes overboard.

"The notion of 'Illumination' was something that is always framed by nature, that nature is always our North Star and our kind of guiding light," Featherstone said. "No pun intended ... maybe slight pun intended."

Illumination: Tree Lights

Where: Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle

When: Nov. 20 through Jan. 2, 2022. Illumination opens each night at 4:30 p.m., with last entry at 8:30 p.m. The exhibition is closed Nov. 22, 25 (Thanksgiving) and 29, and Dec. 6, 13, 24 (Christmas Eve) and 25 (Christmas Day).

Tickets: $8-$24 per person. Admission is free for children under age 2. (Sold out for Saturday night.)

Info: or (630) 725-2066

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