T he Christmas Lights at Clifton Mill
By Emma Jarman
Eleven months out of the year, Clifton, Ohio, is just like any other small town. There’s a waterfall, a coffee shop, a stoplight and a few historic buildings with limited historic significance; though, in this case, even that is a stretch since the Village of Clifton has a total area of only 0.2 square miles. But Clifton, Ohio, nestled about 30 miles east of Dayton and only three miles east of Yellow Springs, has more than one claim to fame. Not only is it home to one of the largest water-powered grist mills left standing but every December, 3.5 million lights are strung in, out and around the village to twinkle through the holiday season for one of the country’s finest displays.
Impressive enough to have been featured in Midwest Living and Ohio Magazine, the lights illuminate the Miniature Village and the Santa Claus Museum. They cascade over the 100-foot waterfall, swing through the old covered bridge and dance to a choreographed musical spectacular. Every night until Christmas Eve, Santa and his elves work by the light of the luminescent strands to get through to the very last hour of the busy season. Three and a half million lights blanket the old mill, the gorge, the riverbanks, trees and bridges, washing the 0.2 square-mile village in a rush of holiday shock and awe.
Last year, flooding threatened the light show, even shutting it down temporarily as the banks of the Little Miami River flooded over and damaged thousands of strands of lights on the mill. This year, necessary repairs have all been made and the season is expected to run smoothly, disregarding the unpredictability of the thermometer. The beauty of snow falling through rainbow shades of twinkling light strands almost makes you forget how cold it is and must be for the snow to be falling in the first place. For more than 20 years, the lights at Clifton have been taking visitors’ minds off the bitter cold and directing them towards the warmth of holiday cheer and the hot chocolate at the mill.
If you’re looking to join a throng of holiday-goers and have a shared experience of oohs and aahs, shoulder to shoulder, sharing warmth like a herd of penguins, weekend nights are the best to go. But if you prefer to meander the sights and experience the darkness of the musical break, followed by the pseudo-religious experience of millions of lights slowly skipping back on to the tune of classical music in a little more private atmosphere, make the journey Monday through Thursday when the roads and walkways are a little clearer. The display is wheelchair accessible, so weekdays are the best times to go to ensure the most comfortable journey through Clifton’s winter wonderland.
Be sure to check out the miniature village at Clifton Mill, complete with recreations of many of Clifton’s historic buildings including a ‘50s-style diner, an illuminated mini-Main Street and operational trains circling the display. The Santa Claus Museum is another must-see. The private collection of the Satariano family has taken almost 40 years to reach its current state and includes more than 3,000 mechanical, toy and advertisement-related Santa Clauses ranging in genre from strange to spectacular. Concessions will serve hot dogs, BBQ pork sandwiches, soup, cornbread, hot chocolate, cookies, pie, popcorn and soft drinks — furthering the reminder that the holidays are officially here with the annual, inevitable calorie-bomb that is the American month of December.
It takes six men about three months to arrange the production, with the show opening the day after Thanksgiving — Nov. 23 this year — and the lights are on every night through New Year’s Day —Jan. 1 next year. Gates are open at 5 p.m. so everyone can filter in and find a spot before the lights come on at 6 p.m. The gates close at 9:30 p.m. with the lights shutting off at 10. The only days to break that schedule are Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, on which the gates will close at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $10 per person to get in the door. Children six and under can leave their wallets at home, the show is at no cost to them. Tickets can be purchased with cash, credit and debit cards, and also Clifton Mill gift certificates, should you have one or be interested in purchasing one as a gift for a party member. There is a group discount of $1 per person in parties of 15 or more, as long one person pays for the entire group. Parking is free.
The lights at Clifton Mill, 75 Water St., Clifton, are open rain or shine, barring torrential downpour or severe winter weather. For more information call 937-767-5501.
Reach DCP freelance writer Emma Jarman at EmmaJarman@daytoncitypaper.com