Lakewood’s Camp Christmas is a winter wonderland

Each of Colorado’s wildly popular and way over-the-top holiday extravaganzas seems to come with this own particular adjective in 2021.

Some are “elegant,” like the one at the Denver Botanic Gardens, where strings of lights map out orderly paths through the twinkling trees and ponds. Others are “adventurous,” like the 80-acre display at the Denver Zoo, where there is plenty of blink, but also a few Amur tigers and Bactrian camels in the show.

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If you go

Camp Christmas continues through Jan. 2 at Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park, 801 S Yarrow St., Lakewood. Tickets are $15-$25, free for kids age 2 and under. Info at Dress warm.

But Camp Christmas at Heritage Lakewood Belmar Park stands out with the most enticing adjective of all. It’s “arty.” Which is to say it feels like a work of art and not just a timely, pumped-up Christmas blow-out meant to generate big box office for a nonprofit.

Though to be honest, Camp Christmas is those things, too. The outdoor attraction has more than 250,000 bulbs aimed at your brain, and more Santas and reindeer and Christmas trees than you really need. It also raises funds for its sponsor, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and its experimental Off-Center production company.

Still, Camp Christmas manages to come off as crafted and hand-made, as if it was assembled from the imagination of an artist, rather than installed by a facilities crew. No surprise, that is exactly the case; the immersive attraction is the brainchild of Lonnie Hanzon, who has been creating fabulous and convoluted art objects for Denver audiences for decades now.

Hanzon is the “director” of this camp, and he aims to instill it with more than the happy glow that covers its surface and clearly delights the kids who wander about the grounds. It has “depth,” and that is its other particular adjective.

Here is one example. Visitors are greeted at the camp gate by a cheerful elf, who checks their tickets and sends them on their merry way. Welcome to the magical Christmas of your dreams.

But just a few steps in, after they pass the hot chocolate stand and a machine that appears to manufacture sugar candy, they encounter an “Emotional Baggage Check,” featuring a pile of suitcases, each with a label like “jealousy,” regret,” “shame” and “betrayal. This is where the miracle of Christmas gives way to the reality of awkward family dinners and office parties. It’s not heavy-handed, it’s actually fun, though it keeps this affair from turning into a cheesy Hallmark movie.

Here is another. In many ways, the camp hews closely to tradition. One of its highlights is an impossibly tall tree, placed in an old barn, that is adorned with thousands of light bulbs spanning 140 years “from an original Edison bulb to LEDs.” The message is clear: Christmas is old-school and eternal.

But there’s also a whomped-up beauty salon meant to honor drag queen chic. It stars lanky mannequins in sky-high wigs made of candy canes and cupcakes and entire mountain villages. This message is clear, as well: Christmas is inclusive and open-minded enough to consider more contemporary ideas like sexual and gender fluidity.

And it does all of this with a family-friendly flair, that accepts and promotes whatever version of Christmas you need in 2021.

Into nostalgia? There is an actual working carousel on site and joy rides on its fancy ponies are included in admission. There is a “Winter Wish Tree” where kids and parents and first-daters can write down a holiday dream and share it with the whole camp community. There is an entire room that serves as a mini-museum tracing the history of winter solstice celebrations back 5,000 years. The Romans wrapped their famous columns in grape vines, the English eventually added in the wassail. And on and on.

More interested in the campier version of Camp Christmas? Well, there’s a groovy, hot pink indoor cocktail lounge with themed beverages. There are lots and lots of mirror balls, along with stand-alone fantasy artworks and assorted steam-punk gadgets.

There is also Hanzon himself, whose personality lingers over everything in larger-than-life fashion. He is the voice of Camp Christmas — literally, he provides the chatter for the QR code-activated audio guide that explains each facet of the attraction — and also the soul of the thing. Camp Christmas reflects his own holiday tastes.

Hanzon loves to wrap packages, so there is a room filled with boxes and boxes of wrapped presents. It’s not about the gifts inside, Hanzon explains on the audio. It’s about the joy of paper and tape and pretty ribbons — and giving

He loves gingerbread, too. So it’s easy to find him there, on-site, baking multiple pans of it in his pop-up studio.

Camp Christmas is personal like that. And the location makes it feel local. The city of Lakewood uses the open space as a place to store historic buildings that would otherwise be torn down. It simply identifies important structures — a farmhouse, an old school, a gas station — and moves them, brick-by-brick, board-by-board, to the park for safekeeping. Hanzon worked closely with city historians to integrate the holiday cheer meaningfully into the fragile structures without damaging their character.

In that sense, Camp Christmas feels like a present itself, from Lakewood to its neighbors, from quirky Lonnie Hanzon to all of Colorado. It’s whacky and warm, gooey but sophisticated, retro and very real.

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