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Christmas in lights: Hastings couple has been telling the Christmas story on back fence for 28 years

This is the final stage of the light show on the fence of Peter and Kathy Gleich. It shows the entire scene of Mary and Joseph in the stable in Bethlehem with the newborn Jesus. Star Gazette photos by Katrina Styx 1 / 2
Peter and Kathy Gleich have been telling the story of Christmas on their back yard fence for 28 years. Each week, they turn on a new part of the picture.2 / 2

For 28 years, one Hastings couple has been quietly spreading the message of Christmas to everyone who drives through Hastings on Highway 55 after dark.

Midway between Prairie Street and North Frontage Road and on the north side of the highway, drivers can see the season of Advent and Christmas unfold in lights as, week after week, a new piece of the picture is illuminated.

Peter and Kathy Gleich are both religion teachers at Catholic schools, so the Christmas story is an important one to them. When they moved to Hastings, they found a great opportunity to spread the Christmas message in the fence along the back of their property.

“I looked at that fence and thought ‘what a great palate,’” Peter said.

When he was in college at Saint Mary’s in Winona, he organized an all-campus Advent prayer service, he said. His roommate offered to handle the lighting and came up with a series of images drawn with strings of lights, adding more to the picture until the image was complete.

Peter took the concept to his back fence the first year he and his family moved here, and it’s been silently narrating the Christmas story every year since.

The story starts with the first week of Advent, which began Nov. 29. The first week, the image shows a horizon of mountains and hills. It marks the beginning of the journey Mary and Joseph took as well as the beginning of the season, Peter said.

For the second week, the mountains are joined by a city – the city of Bethlehem. At this point, Mary and Joseph are getting closer; the city and Christmas are in sight, but they aren’t here yet.

On the third week, the stable appears, bringing viewers even closer to the scene.

On the fourth week, the figures of Mary and Joseph light up in the stable, and the star of Bethlehem comes to light in the trees above.

And finally, on Christmas Eve, the manger with baby Jesus is visible.

The display stays that way for a week or two after Christmas, and then the illuminated family leaves while the stable, city and mountains remain a few more weeks.

The lights are a reminder, Peter said, first that people need to get ready for the Christmas season and second, that Dec. 25 isn’t the end. The Christmas season starts on Christmas Day, he said, and continues into January with Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.

“If nothing else, it’s my way of saying let the season unfold,” he said of the lights.

Peter doesn’t ask for recognition, but the lights have become a nice local ministry for them. Kathy, who teaches at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton School, said she now duplicates the light display on her classroom board, drawing the stages each week. She uses it to remind her students, “as they’re rushed from one activity to the next… to slow down,” she said.

She also talks about it to her students, encouraging them and their parents to look at the lights whenever they drive by and to let it serve as another way to mark the time around Christmas.

Besides telling the story itself, the Gleichs hope their display spreads a message of hope, also.

“One of the beauties of Advent and Lent,” Peter said, “is that it is a time to permit ourselves to be quiet and encounter the sacred in whatever form it takes. Without it, life can be very discouraging.”

Advent, he said, gives people time to remember the hope that comes with faith.

And others seem to be getting the message, too. Some have been watching the lights change for the past 20 years, Kathy said. One stranger even left a note in their mailbox one year, thanking them for the display.