The Garden is open 9 am-8 pm daily (except Thursdays, 9 am-4:30 pm) through August 31. Garden grounds are open, but access to buildings is limited. See details below.

A Family Tradition Almost 20 Years in the Making

By Rachel Mueller, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

For many families, the holidays mean get-togethers, quality time and a coming together after months or years apart.

For the Swelstad clan, the season also includes an annual trip to opening night of WPS Garden of Lights on Black Friday.

For close to 20 years, this has been their annual tradition, and Thanksgiving marks when Jack Swelstad’s entire family makes the trek back to Green Bay, Wisconsin. He and his wife, Marjie, welcome back their four kids and typically 17 grandkids – ages 1.5 to 20 years old – to the Frozen Tundra for family time, good food and deer hunting season. They come from all over the United States, as close as Milwaukee and as far away as Minnesota, Colorado and Virginia.

“It’s wholesome family entertainment,” he says about WPS Garden of Lights. “It’s something we can do in the wintertime as a family that doesn’t take too long.”

Jack goes on to explain that the outing is perfect for people of all ages, but it’s been especially wonderful for his little grandkids over the years. Having that immediate wow factor of seeing more than 300,000 twinkling lights in nature around the Garden is something they don’t find anywhere else. Their walk through the light show typically takes about 30 minutes, which is not too short but not too long. There’s also something for every person in his family, whether they love seeing displays with flowers, butterflies or simply enjoy gazing at the 50-foot lite-up Christmas tree.

50-ft holiday tree

PC: John Oates Photography 

“The lights are really pretty at night and all of us love that the show changes each year,” says Jack. “It’s also affordable and there truly is something for everyone to see and do.”

While seeing the lights is their favorite part of the night, making magical memories together outdoors isn’t all Jack and his family get to enjoy during WPS Garden of Lights. They also head inside to warm up, drink hot chocolate and visit with Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“Santa has a great personality,” he says with a smile. “It makes taking our family photo with him all the more fun.”

family photo with santa

The Swelstad clan. Photo courtesy of Jack Swelstad.

Their outing to WPS Garden of Lights includes a family photo with Santa, which makes sense since the entire Swelstad group is there. The photo also usually ends up being their Christmas card that they share with other family and friends.

“The last photo we had taken, the only person with their eyes closed was my mother who’s 100,” Jacks laughs. “Nobody thought of looking at her, but when I got home and looked, sure enough, great-grandma had her eyes closed.”

It’s been a running inside joke in the family ever since. Because their family is so large and includes several on the younger side, they always made sure the photographer checked for blinks. Because their priority was to make sure the kids’ eyes were open, no one noticed great-grandma’s eyes were closed.

When Jack looks back on his family’s time at WPS Garden of Lights and other Garden events throughout the year, two phrases always come to mind.

“High quality experiences” and “for all ages and people with all interests.”

holiday trees on hill

PC: C Gleason

He also urges that if you’ve never done it before, you should do it at least once, and bring your family and friends along for the trip. It can easily become a family or friend tradition.

“It’s a value added to the membership, which Marjie and I both enjoy,” he adds. “Meaning that it’s one more thing that the Garden does that makes the membership what it is.”

And while WPS Garden of Lights gives amazing perks to members of the Garden – special pricing on select days – Jack wants people to remember that the Garden is open all year long and has something for all people in the community, in every season.

“Come and see it for yourselves,” he says, “Whether it’s the spring bulb display, concerts in the summer, the butterfly house or the Garden of Lights, there’s always something to do.”

Interested in becoming a member? Join by December 6 and you’ll receive a free gift valued at $20: 2 complimentary adult walking tickets to this year’s WPS Garden of Lights!

Become a Member


Members also enjoy special pricing on Thursdays, Sundays and December 26–30 during WPS Garden of Lights. It’s $3 admission for walking tickets with a valid membership card at the door only (wagon rides are $5 more per member). You’ll also receive a coupon for one 12 oz. hot chocolate or popcorn.

caterpillar holiday light display

PC: John Oates Photography

Jack and Marjie are avid gardeners and long-time members of Green Bay Botanical Garden. They’ve been involved with Green Bay Botanical Garden since it opened to the public in 1996 and Jack recently wrapped up a 9-year term on our board. He still serves as an advisor and serves as Chairperson for the Board Development Committee.