All spruced up: Morton Arboretum's 'Illumination' makes trees the 'star of the show'

Along a trail of conifers, sticks of shimmering light turn the forest floor into a sea of gold on both sides of the path, everywhere you look.

Come upon this sight in the Morton Arboretum's “Illumination,” the holiday lights show, now in its 11th year, and you might just feel a sense of renewal in a season of shopping, wrapping, baking and endless to-do lists.

“One of the things that we want ‘Illumination' to be is a pocket of peace and reflection in a really busy time of year for everybody,” said John Featherstone, the man in charge of the lighting design from the beginning.

Opening Saturday with a reconfigured route, “Illumination” has become one of the area's largest seasonal attractions, drawing sellout crowds on peak nights, but it hasn't lost its restorative magic.

Gently rotating disco balls cast swirling dots of light around a grove of trees, creating a celestial canopy. Beams of light bring your eye skyward, through the arms of forest giants. A honey locust is silhouetted by up-lighting as the “Champion Tree” of “Illumination.” Throughout the milelong route — reversed this year — you're meant to slow down and study the architecture of trees.

“If there is one thing that we've really focused on more of, it's more emotional souvenirs for our guests and more opportunities for people to take away a distinctive memory, experience, feeling from ‘Illumination,'” Featherstone said.

Illumination” started as a meditation on the raw beauty of the arboretum landscape in winter. The display now covers about 50 of the arboretum's 1,700 acres in Lisle.

“The ethos and impetus for ‘Illumination' was to invite people to the arboretum to experience the trees in a different light, but also to reconnect with nature at a time of year where, in the Midwest, we maybe don't automatically think about connecting with nature,” Featherstone said.

The “Illumination” path is paved and now ADA-compliant. The reworked route is more accessible for people who use wheelchairs and strollers. In previous years, parts of the trail had a bit of an incline.

“The way the route gently meanders through the conifer trail has really kind of given us an opportunity to lean into wrapping the experience around the guests,” Featherstone said.

“Illumination” first brings guests through a colonnade of trees and into the circular plaza in the core of the arboretum's “Grand Garden.” The route continues to the popular “Treemagination” exhibit. Fireworks burst on a static wall of trees with a technique called projection mapping.

“The viewer really resonates with the surprise and delight of an unusual surface being used as a vehicle for projection,” Featherstone said.

In a new area, you'll walk among giant twinkling stars installed on both sides of the path. Then, you'll come down “Ornament Hill,” covered in blinking globes of red, green, purple and blue light, and approach a re-imagined “Symphony Woods.”

“It's wonderful to be able to rethink and reframe a beloved experience and give it a whole sort of different lease of life,” Featherstone said. “And we're deploying an all-new array of lighting fixtures as part of the way that we light the trees.”

The production concludes at the arboretum's Meadow Lake. For the finale, shafts of light crisscross into the sky and across the water.

“There's also something magical about a walk around the lake and the constantly shifting perspective you get of the floating towers in the lake, the reflections from the water, the juxtaposition with the arbor that surrounds the lake in a way that it is less of a ‘please stand and watch this experience' finale as we had last year and more of a participatory experience,” Featherstone said.

LED lighting and festive music are now synchronized throughout much of the experience. Outdoor speakers play the Pentatonix a cappella group and an instrumental “Carol of the Bells.” On Dec. 29, the arboretum hosts a new 80s-themed version of “Electric Illumination” for 18-and-older visitors.

The rest of the year, Featherstone and his lighting company, Lightswitch, work with concert halls and high-profile musicians. Lightswitch, for instance, designed lighting and visuals for Beck on his summer tour.

“One is never in any doubt in those situations who's the kind of star of the show. We approach ‘Illumination' the same way,” Featherstone said. “We want to make sure that the trees are the star of the show.”

'Refreshed, renewed, rethought': Morton Arboretum holiday lights show is designed to walk through

Images: Morton Arboretum's “Illumination” holiday lights show

  Morton Arboretum's "Illumination" holiday lights show features 18 displays on a milelong paved walking trail. "Treemagination" uses projection mapping to display patterns on pine trees. John Starks/
  Floating, mirrored towers on Meadow Lake send beams of light into the sky for the finale of the Morton Arboretum's "Illumination." John Starks/
  Visitors to the Morton Arboretum's "Illumination" can make s'mores over warming bonfires. John Starks/
  With a reconfigured route this year, "Illumination" now begins through a gateway of light into the circular plaza of the Morton Arboretum's "Grand Garden." John Starks/
  In "Symphony Woods," lighting and music are synchronized beat by beat. John Starks/
  "Golden Glade" surrounds visitors on a trail through the Morton Arboretum's conifer collection. John Starks/

Illumination: Tree Lights

Where: Morton Arboretum, 4100 Route 53, Lisle

When: Saturday through Jan. 6. Doors open at 4:30 p.m.; last entry at 8:30 p.m.; lights out at 9:30 p.m. The event is closed Nov. 20, 23 (Thanksgiving), 27; Dec. 4, 11, 24 (Christmas Eve), and 25 (Christmas Day).

Food: Concession tents will serve hot chocolate, snacks and s'mores kits for warming bonfires.

Electric Illumination: 18-and-older, late-night Fridays on Dec. 8, 15, 22, 29. Doors open at 9:30 p.m.; last entry at 10 p.m.; lights out at 11 p.m. Dec. 29 is '80s music night.

Tickets: Start at $16. Prices will vary by day and time selected.

Info: Online at <a href=""></a>, or by calling (630) 725-2066.

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