KENNEBUNK, Maine — In a time of year when the days are short and the nights are cold and dark, sparkling holiday lights are often a go-to for curing the seasonal blues.
That tradition has taken on a whole new meaning in one southern Maine community, though, as people make an effort to come together and help each other.
The second annual Holiday Trail of Lights contest is underway in Kennebunkport, Kennebunk, and Arundel. Local homeowners and business owners were invited to take part by decorating their buildings and choosing an area nonprofit to support.
Spectators can follow online maps to see the different destinations and then vote on their favorites for $5 a vote. The money collected will benefit the selected nonprofit, and the winner gets an additional $500.
"It helps spread the word about the good work that's going on every day that you might not be familiar with," Kennebunkport Town Manager and event mastermind Laurie Smith said. She said it started in 2020 as a response to the pandemic.
"It was another fun way to celebrate the lights. Everybody wants to go out and drive around and look at the lights," Smith said.
Sarah Weston decorated her home in Kennebunk for the contest again this year. She said her family loves to decorate. In 2020, this event gave them something to do in their pandemic bubble. It was also exciting for her father, who she said loved the holidays.
"He was all about decorating and going big," she said.
In 2020, the Westons decided on a theme of the "Island of Misfit Toys" and chose the Sea Road School PTA as their nonprofit. David Weston, Sarah Weston's father, wanted to support teachers after he realized, while homeschooling their grandkids that year, just how hard teachers work.
The week of Thanksgiving, Sarah Weston's father ended up going to the hospital and caught COVID while there. He was alone, but they could talk on the phone.
"[Decorating] is what our focus was on the phone," she said. "The conversation about, 'How are you doing? What else do you guys need to do to get more votes?' He was very competitive."
She said her dad died on Dec. 13, 2020, at 80 years old.
After learning the news, the PTA wanted to help the Westons win the competition in David Weston's honor. Anna Dixon, president of the PTA, said members posted about the contest on social media and encouraged people to get out and vote. The Westons ended up winning the homeowners category.
"It all just kind of flowed into this fabulous, amazing support from our community," Dixon said.
"It was really interesting how we started it to help others and give us something to do as a family. And in the end, it ended up helping us get through something that was very challenging," Sarah Weston said.
Her kids have since moved on to middle school, so this year, she and her family are supporting a different nonprofit. They chose the local chamber of commerce's Little Pantry, since David Weston thought having an all-hours place to get food items and other goods provided an important service to the community.
"He thought it was a great idea because it's a place where people can go any time all night, all day and just grab something if [they] need it," Sarah Weston said.
"It speaks to the spirit of the season. It speaks, honestly, to the spirit of this community, which is pretty extraordinary," Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport-Arundel Chamber of Commerce, said about the gesture.
Last year, the Westons ended up raising $3,300 for the Sea Road School PTA. Dixon said they're planning to use that money in some way to honor David Weston.
The Holiday Trail of Lights raised $25,000 for local nonprofits.
Anyone interested in checking out the spectacle this year can find a map of trails here.