The Chapel Hill lakeside neighborhood lights up around the holidays, reflecting residents’ donations around the community
By Isabella Reilly | Photography by John Michael Simpson
The water at Eastwood Lake shines brighter in December, as residents of Lake Forest decorate their docks with colorful light displays to welcome the holiday season and give back to the community.
In 2014, Lisa Carey, distinguished professor for breast cancer research and deputy director of clinical sciences at UNC, and husband Matt Ewend, chief clinical officer at UNC Health, spearheaded the efforts. As Lisa and Matt thought about making their usual end-of-year donation to the SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals, they had the idea to increase the number of lakeside displays as part of a neighborhoodwide fundraiser.
“We and a couple of others thought it would be fun to get everybody involved and say, ‘The more lit up docks we see down by the lake, the more we’ll give,’” Lisa says.
Decorations typically begin going up around Thanksgiving, she says, and remain up until New Year’s. Past displays have ranged from multicolored holiday light balls strewn in backyard trees and string lights to an entire holiday bakery display. Lisa says her family puts out a 10-foot Christmas tree each year.
Resident John Watkin, owner of MVP Video, creates a short film of the displays each year and has enjoyed seeing a growth in neighborhood participation. Since 2014, he says the tradition has grown from two to almost all 40-something houses on the lake. “It’s this really nice celebration of lights,” John says. “We try to not make it about any specific holiday.”
While the number of homes participating has increased over the years, so have the nonprofits receiving donations. In 2018, residents Daniel Pomp, a UNC professor, and Andrea Eisen, a Refugee Community Partnership co-founder, felt it was important to add RCP, a social services organization, to the list that also includes Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill.
Each year, residents choose a night either near or on Christmas Day to collectively paddle around the lake – some in rowboats, canoes or party barges that are just as festive – to admire the displays. “It’s not like we get together all the time,” John says. “It’s really special.”
Daniel, who doesn’t celebrate Christmas himself, says he has enjoyed seeing the different traditions that have blossomed from this annual display of lights. At the end of the paddle, he says residents gather for food and drinks around a fire pit at an outdoor after-party hosted by one of the houses near the end of the flotilla.
“We didn’t do [the after-party] during COVID, but I suspect this December, we will revitalize that part of the flotilla, which to me was a really important component,” Daniel says. “When you’re out on the lake, you don’t get to see everyone, but when we all collect together as a community, it’s a great way to finish
In the future, Lisa says she would love to have residents who live in the neighborhood but not on the lake get involved by decorating Eastwood Lake Park.
She adds the tradition has turned into a “great pleasure” for Lake Forest. “I think everybody likes their community to feel close-knit,” Lisa says. “Having shared experiences, where people lean in on creating that experience, gives everyone those warm and fuzzy feelings. I think this is Lake Forest neighborhood’s way of doing that.”