'Tis the season: Orchard Lake Schools kick off 'iconic' Christmas light display

For 35 years, the Orchard Lake Schools have been known for their magnificent display of Christmas lights, visible from across the lake and "iconic" in the surrounding community, with hundreds of thousands of lights and a large Christmas tree in the center of campus. Students and alumni gathered Nov. 19 for the schools' annual "Mingle All the Way" celebration, which included live reindeer, a Christmas market, caroling and a visit from Santa and his elves. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Since the 1980s, students and volunteers have spread holiday joy by decking out the 120-acre campus with thousands of lights

WEST BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP Over the last 35 years, neighbors of the Orchard Lake Schools’ sprawling, 120-acre campus have grown accustomed to its annual Christmas light display, which is visible from the surrounding roads and even from across the lake itself.

The tradition, which began in the late 1980s by Robin Goddard, a longtime fixture at the schools who currently works for the athletics department at St. Mary’s Preparatory, started with decorations in the campus' Marian grotto. Year after year, Goddard has collected more lights and more decorations, spreading holiday joy in the form of more than 100,000 lights across the campus with the help of students.

Over the last two years, thanks to Lisa Gray, assistant director of development for the Orchard Lake Schools, the tradition has grown into a larger-than-life Christmas celebration, gathering current students and their families and alumni together around a massive Christmas tree in the center of campus.

A family with small children gazes in wonder at the nearly 30-foot Christmas tree after flipping the switch to turn it on during the Orchard Lake Schools' "Mingle All the Way" celebration Nov. 19. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
A family with small children gazes in wonder at the nearly 30-foot Christmas tree after flipping the switch to turn it on during the Orchard Lake Schools' "Mingle All the Way" celebration Nov. 19. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Families pose for photos with Santa Claus during the Orchard Lake Schools' annual "Mingle All the Way" celebration Nov. 19. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Families pose for photos with Santa Claus during the Orchard Lake Schools' annual "Mingle All the Way" celebration Nov. 19. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)

On Nov. 19, between 500-600 Orchard Lake Schools community members took part in this year's "Mingle All the Way" celebration, which included food, crafts, a raffle, a performance from the school band, photos with Santa and his elves, live reindeer petting, and, of course, the lighting of a nearly 30-foot Christmas tree.

The event also included a Christmas marketplace featuring 14 vendors selling items from school merchandise to mittens, barbecue sauce, Polish pottery and fudge.

Goddard, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has St. Mary's Preparatory students help with the decorations, which begin weeks in advance of the event, Gray said.

“He decorates in conjunction with all the kids on campus,” Gray said. “He has such a passion for Christmas and all the festivities, lighting and that kind of stuff, and he has a great passion for working with the kids. It was a great way for him to get the kids involved in helping him. He loves doing this.”

This year, for the first time ever, real reindeer attended the festivities, and Gray organized a Christmas marketplace featuring 14 vendors selling items from school merchandise to mittens, barbecue sauce, Polish pottery and fudge. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
This year, for the first time ever, real reindeer attended the festivities, and Gray organized a Christmas marketplace featuring 14 vendors selling items from school merchandise to mittens, barbecue sauce, Polish pottery and fudge. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
The celebration included a performance of holiday classics by the St. Mary's Preparatory band in the school's gymnasium. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
The celebration included a performance of holiday classics by the St. Mary's Preparatory band in the school's gymnasium. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Students help Goddard — whom they call “Mr. Robin” — during their study hall to hang hundreds of thousands of lights up around campus, and donors contribute throughout the year to the lighting fund, Gray explained.

Goddard, whom Gray said prefers to deflect attention away from himself, enjoys the days leading up to the event and the day of the event itself, taking pride in the students' involvement and making sure it's a spectacular event for all involved.

“(Goddard) has probably been to Bronner's (CHRISTmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth) at least 15 times in the past couple of weeks,” Gray laughed, speaking to Detroit Catholic in the days before the event. “This week alone, he has been there six times.”

Robin Goddard, a volunteer and member of the St. Mary's Preparatory athletic department, has spearheaded the Christmas decoration initiative since the 1980s, involving students each year in the decorating effort. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)
Robin Goddard, a volunteer and member of the St. Mary's Preparatory athletic department, has spearheaded the Christmas decoration initiative since the 1980s, involving students each year in the decorating effort. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)
The Christmas market included St. Mary's Preparatory merchandise, festive decorations, homemade goods and holiday fare. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)
The Christmas market included St. Mary's Preparatory merchandise, festive decorations, homemade goods and holiday fare. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

Bryan Gray (no relation to Lisa Gray) graduated from St. Mary's Preparatory in 1999 and is currently president of the Orchard Lake Schools Alumni Association. He remembers decorating the campus alongside Goddard when he was a student.

“It was really whoever was in the good graces of Robin, so Robin hand-picked certain kids that were good kids that he wanted help from,” Bryan Gray explained. “It was totally voluntary.”

Bryan Gray said the lights have become iconic in the area.

“You can see them from the lake, see it from Commerce Road, from Orchard Lake Road, and I think everyone who lives in this area is just somewhat connected to it and thinks of it as iconic,” Bryan Gray said. “Robin has done such a good job maintaining this tradition for the school and for everyone around.”

Two girls pray before a life-sized Nativity on display at the campus' Marian grotto. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Two girls pray before a life-sized Nativity on display at the campus' Marian grotto. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Over the last several years, the lights have become part of a larger celebration that brings current and former students together. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)
Over the last several years, the lights have become part of a larger celebration that brings current and former students together. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

While the entire event is fun for the whole family, students and alumni agree the highlight is the lighting of the Christmas tree, which takes place after dark.

“We have Fr. Bernard Witek (SDS, director of the St. John Paul II Liturgical Center on campus) bless the tree, and there are several kids picked who light the tree with Santa,” Lisa Gray explained.

Following the tree lighting, members of the Gospel choir from Family Victory Fellowship Church in Southfield led the crowd in a Christmas sing-a-long.

For students, the event is an opportunity not only to see their friends and enjoy a holiday tradition, but to show what the school is capable of.

Volunteers serve hot meals, beverages and Christmas cheer inside the school's gymnasium. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Volunteers serve hot meals, beverages and Christmas cheer inside the school's gymnasium. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Families "ooh" and "ahh" as the Christmas tree is lit at the center of campus Nov. 19. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)
Families "ooh" and "ahh" as the Christmas tree is lit at the center of campus Nov. 19. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

“I really love that they do this. It's so fun, and it’s better for St. Mary's because it just shows a lot about our character and how we like to celebrate the holidays,” St. Mary's Prep ninth-grader Sophia Markoz told Detroit Catholic.

Juniors and twin sisters Amelia and Miriam Czarnik volunteered to dress up as Santa’s elves; they passed out candy and took pictures with children in attendance.

“This event is really important because of what it means to a lot of families, and I think it’s really cool to see all the students come together and enjoy it,” Amelia Czarnik said. “I just think it's really incredible to be able to put this together and then make an experience for younger children.”

Amelia and Miriam Czarnik, juniors and twin sisters at St. Mary's Preparatory, served as Santa's elves during the "Mingle All the Way" event. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)
Amelia and Miriam Czarnik, juniors and twin sisters at St. Mary's Preparatory, served as Santa's elves during the "Mingle All the Way" event. (Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)
Families gather for the annual event, which brings together current and alumni students and families to celebrate the holidays and the impact of the Orchard Lake Schools. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)
Families gather for the annual event, which brings together current and alumni students and families to celebrate the holidays and the impact of the Orchard Lake Schools. (Alissa Tuttle | Special to Detroit Catholic)

Lisa Gray said the school welcomes donations in order to keep the event free of cost and focus on community-building.

“Everybody coming together to celebrate the Christmas season, really, that is the wonderful part of it,” Gray said. “You can see the joy on the kids' faces when they come, and it helps build comradery between all the different families.”



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