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Twenty-six facts about The Grotto's Christmas Festival of Lights


The 26th Christmas Festival of Lights, the world's largest choral festival, at The Grotto runs through Dec. 30.
In 2006, Patty Williams, from left, (FOL Music Host in 1991; Music Coordinator in 1995 and FOL Coordinator from 2002-06) takes a break with Peter Mott (FOL Coordinator from 1989-98, and 2007-present) and 25-year volunteer Alex Shierman, who came every night. Shierman passed away shortly after the 25th FOL concluded.
Every year The Grotto's Executive Director, Father Jack Topper, OSM, personally welcomes thousands of visitors to the Festival Lights during its run.
As The Grotto's Christmas Festival of Lights enters its 26th year, Festival Coordinator Peter Mott gives us 26 facts-bonus ones too-about the world's largest choral festival that opened Friday, Nov. 29 and runs through Monday, Dec. 30 right here in Mid-county.

1) One million people have attended the FOL since its opening in 1988.

2) The Grotto has two names. The official name is The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, but most people just call it The Grotto. Bonus fact: In the second year (1989), the FOL drew twice as many adults (15,610) as year one (8,335).

3) Three Grotto employees have worked every year: Brother Gregory Atherton, Grounds/Facilities Manager Mark Combelic and Master Puppeteer Celeste Rose. Bonus facts: The three worst years of weather were 1990, 2006 and 2008. Three groups from far-flung locations perform this year: Vancouver BC (St. Charles Borromeo Choir), Anaheim, CA, (Servite High School), and the Philippines (University of the Philippines).

4) Four years of research, pre-planning and gathering community support were necessary before the first event could happen. Bonus facts: There was no FOL theme for four years-2006-09. In its fourth year (1991), the festival exceeded 30,000 visitors for the first time.

5) Over a five-year period, donations received from the Harry A. Merlo Foundation helped The Grotto purchase additional lighting displays.

6) In its sixth year, the festival expanded from its original 10 nights to five weekends; the festival was six weekends last year.

7) Seven choirs have performed every year: Centennial High School, Christ the King Parish Choir, The Dickens Carolers, Holy Redeemer, Madison High School, Parkrose High School, and St. Mary's Academy. Bonus fact: In year seven (1991), the 40,000 visitors plateau was reached for the first time, making it the largest choral festival in the Pacific Northwest, according to Mott.

8) The FOL offered an $8 ticket for seniors 65 and over for the first time last year. The Grotto also provides thousands of complimentary and discounted tickets.

9) Nine dollars is today's general admission price, $8 for seniors 65 and over, and $4 for children 3 to 12-years-old are today's ticket prices; children two and under get in for free. Bonus fact: The FOL has nine different power boxes to light the event.

10) The inaugural FOL was 10 days in 1988. Today, it runs between 31 and 37 days depending when Thanksgiving falls-it opens the day after Thanksgiving and closes every year on Dec. 30. Bonus fact: During the 10th year, the FOL exceeded 50,000 visitors for the first time.

11) Eleven nights of arctic temperatures brought the festival to its knees in 1991. Daily highs were in the low-to-mid-teens with wind chill factors lowering the temperature to the minus teens. Of course, attendance was miserable. The inclement weather, combined with strong support from choirs and volunteers, encouraged Executive Director Father Jack Topper and The Grotto to embark on an expansion plan to open the day after Thanksgiving and close Dec. 30. Bonus fact: Best year for attendance was 2011, with more than 62,000 people.

12) Twelve ascending angels are affixed to The Grotto's 110-foot high cliff over the Nativity scene.

13) Thirteen choirs have performed at the FOL 22 or more years. Records are a little sketchy for early years and a few groups might be the same, but have changed their name.

14) Fourteen votive candles were sold in 1988 on the first night.

15) Fifteen choirs have performed 20 or more years.

16) Sixteen dollars was the daily cost for the additional electricity in 1988.

17) “Seventeen nights was all we could handle in 1991,” Mott said. “It was the worst weather year ever. With heavy snow and ice accumulations slamming us, daily highs were in the low-to-high teens with wind chill factors lowering practical temperatures into the minus teens.

“It was also Father Jack's first year. This wasn't as rare to Father Jack as it was to us. Unlike Portland, Chicago doesn't fold with freezing rain. To Father Jack's credit and fortitude, we stayed open. He was extremely reluctant to close as we had advertised being open.” Mott Added, “We had 15 people one night-and that was a pre-arranged tour. We got crushed, figuratively and literally-snow and falling branches collapsed the tents, displays and lights. It was a serious challenge for us Portlanders, but not for Father Jack. He continues to be at the festival every night of every year since.”

18) Eighteen brave souls paid admission that first night of freezing rain in 1990.

19) The 1988 ticket prices were $2.50 for adults, $1.50 for children.

20) Two hundred amps of electric power were used in 1988; 2,400 amps are used today, with LED lights that need less power.

21) In year 21 (2008), severe weather with heavy freezing rain caused the festival's closure for nine nights before and after Christmas. As a result, tents collapsed and attendance fell below 30,000 for the first time in 18 years.

22) In 1988, there were 22 performances, about two a night; half were soloists or small ensembles. In 2012, there were a record 179 performances in The Grotto's Chapel of Mary, known by choir groups from around the region for its unique acoustics. Bonus fact: FOL Coordinator Peter Mott has been involved 22 years. He was FOL Coordinator from 1989 to 1998 and then from 2007 to the present. He was production supervisor for five years from 2002 to 2006.

23) Twenty-three volunteers have participated in FOL for 15 consecutive years. Bonus fact: FOL Graphic Artist Larry Kirby and The Grotto Executive Director Father Jack Topper have been there 23 years.

24) Twenty-four choirs have performed 20 or more years.

25) Three sponsors have supported the FOL since its inception 25 years ago: Danna Brothers' Elmer's, National Electrical Contractors Association-Oregon/Columbia Local 48 and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Sunbelt Rentals (formerly Ivy Hi-Lift). Bonus fact: Alex Shierman volunteered 25 years. He would have been at the 26th; however, shortly after last year's FOL, he passed away. “He came out every year, almost every night; he even volunteered the year he was caring for his invalided parents,” said Mott. “Alex donated more time by far, than any other volunteer. We'll miss him.”

26) The festival hopes to bring on 260 new volunteers this year.

The Grotto, The National Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother, is at 8840 N.E. Skidmore St. The main office phone number is 503-254-7371. For more information about the festival, visit

Bonus fact: More than 25,000 people have volunteered since 1988. How about you?

Call Volunteer Coordinator Margaret Gunter at 503-261-2433, or email her at or 503-261-2433. Volunteers may also go to to learn more or sign up.
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