The history of Denver's holiday lights

An electrician in 1917 launched the tradition of Denver holiday displays

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In this day and age when factories and machinery produce many of the things we need in our daily lives, it’s difficult to imagine the task of stringing individual light bulbs together to create the holiday displays we know and love. But in early 1900s Denver, that’s how it was done — six months of preparation, 3,300 ornaments, 10 miles of wire and 30,000 light bulbs totaling 260,000 watts.

Back in 1917, one man was responsible for starting the tradition of the Christmas light display on the City and County building at 1437 Bannock St. Over a career of nearly 40 years, John Malpiede hand-strung tens of thousands of bulbs that lined the building and Greek Theater at Civic Center Park. He and his crew would also build the giant Christmas trees that stood in front of the building and in the park.

To Mike DeGidio, Malpiede’s great-grandson, he will always be the man who created Christmas in Denver, as well as a man who loved the holiday season.

“I think it shows in his work — I mean he did everything,” said DeGidio, who works in a roofing company and owns a painting business. “It was crazy how much he loved Christmas.”

Scrapbook details the history

His first year, Malpiede had a $200 budget, according to his 1956 retirement article in the Rocky Mountain News. The humble beginnings of a great tradition started with a few red and green lights and some evergreen trees.

The Malpiedes came to the U.S. from Sicily in the late 1800s. DeGidio said his great-grandfather ran a bar on the 16th Street Mall for a short time before becoming the city’s head electrician. He started by creating light displays for his own home off Julian Street in the Berkeley neighborhood in north Denver.

DeGidio’s mother collected old photographs of Malpiede’s work on Christmas lights across several decades. She worked with her husband to collect the details about her father-in-law’s storied career in the city of Denver. Pages in her homemade scrapbook show a black-and-white photo of the Malpiede’s home with green and red ink painted on the glowing lights. The pages of the scrapbook are on candy cane-striped and other Christmas-themed paper.

Some photos show Malpiede and his crew working on creating large candle displays. Others show staff building a large Christmas tree in front of the City and County building. Many photos have handwritten notes with the year or who’s in the photo. Although his mother has since passed away, DeGidio still has the scrapbook, which also has articles and letters of recognition about the Christmas lights. According to one article, Denver was known worldwide as being the first city to create a Christmas display.

A letter from January 1946 from Rep. Dean Gillespie, who represented Denver’s district in the United States Congress, thanked Malpiede for his work in creating a “veritable fairyland at Christmas time.”

“What they do now is nothing compared to what they used to do,” DeGidio said. “The lights are cool, they’re all LED. There’s more pizzaz. But I like old-school.”

Passing on the legacy

The displays made by Malpiede spread from the City and County building over to Civic Center park. DeGidio said his great-grandfather also did light displays for the Denver Zoo before the tradition of Zoo Lights. Malpiede brought in live reindeer for Christmas festivities in addition to creating manger, Santa and other displays.

But perhaps some of DeGidio’s favorite memories are of getting to flip the switch to turn on the lights on Christmas Eve. While his great-grandfather was still alive, DeGidio said he continued to be a part of the lighting ceremony even after Malpiede retired from the city in 1956. Former Gov. Richard Lamm dedicated a plaque to Malpiede at the Greek Theater of Civic Center park in 1978.

After Malpiede passed away in 1977, his family took over turning on the light during Christmas Eve celebrations. Last month was special for DeGidio because it was the first year he took his 4-year-old son to participate. As a special surprise, his son got to flip the switch, marking the fifth generation to do so.

DeGidio hopes the family legacy continues for years to come.

“It will all have to carry down,” he said. “I think (my son’s) going to be very happy. He’s getting to that age where he’s really getting into things.”

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