In its first stab at a holiday lights display, the Morton Arboretum knocks it out of the park — and at 1,700 acres, the arboretum is, it should be said, a pretty big park.

"Illumination," which opens Friday and runs through Jan. 4, is an elegant, inspiring and, at times, poetic meeting of bulb and branch, a softly glowing testament to the versatility of the new LED technology and the power of underscoring landscape features rather than scribbling across them with the candlepower equivalent of a fluorescent highlighter.

With subtlety and grace, the exhibit keeps the focus firmly on the long-time stars of the west suburban woodland preserve, the trees. The stark architecture of bare hardwoods is cast in colorful relief, gnarled figures against a night sky. The evergreens become a sort of movie screen.

The display delights and surprises throughout the course of its more-than-a-mile path beginning and ending at the park's Visitor Center. And it immediately becomes, to the extent that anything can on all of our overcrowded year-end calendars, a must-see destination.

You can view brighter lights and more lights at Lincoln Park Zoo's ZooLights and Brookfield Zoo's Holiday Magic. Those annual attractions, opening next Friday and Saturday respectively, still provide ample charms for their well-established fan bases. The zoo displays, though, play a little bit like the biggest and most bulb-wrapped house in a neighborhood known for going overboard at Christmastime.

The arboretum's effort reads more like a theatrical stage, where the lights are meant to be bold and unique, yes, but in service to the play, as a means of painting the scenery. As a result, "Illumination" is something entirely new, both in Chicago and, to hear the lighting designer and park officials tell it, in the country.

"What's gratifying to us is the Arboretum said, 'What's everybody else doing? Let's do something people aren't doing,'" said John Featherstone, principal in the Chicago office of Lightswitch Inc., which designed the lighting. "'Let's increase the bandwidth of what the winter experiences are here.'"

Lightswitch and Morton crews have installed 500 individually addressable LED fixtures, the biggest of them nicknamed "R2D2s" for their resemblance to the "Star Wars" robot. They've laid 20 miles of cable to feed those fixtures. Yet all of it takes no more juice, officials said, than three typical homes.

At the root of the display, if you'll allow the biological reference, is the museum's desire to draw more visitors in winter months, in between the leaves falling and the buds appearing, said Morton CEO Gerard Donnelly.

There's also the desire to entice them out of their cars, which too many Arboretum visitors do not leave during, say, an annual fall foliage visit. "Illumination" requires an hour or so of outdoor walking as winter approaches, and — guess what? — you won't begin to lose feeling in the extremities.

"Our main purpose in all off this," Donnelly said, "is to find other ways to draw people's attention to trees." People in the Midwest have a sort of bipolar relationship with trees, Featherstone said, giving them full attention in the warmer months and then tending to ignore them as the hats and gloves come out. "We wanted to use light to pull trees back into the foreground and reframe people's relationship with arbor for the winter months," said Featherstone.

Whether you'll come away from this wanting to apologize to your crab apple, or genuflect before your ginkgo, is an open question. But even if it doesn't strike you on the loftiest planes, "Illumination" is, at minimum, a really cool walk in the woods.

And for creature comforts, these woods feature paved paths and pit stops for firepits, s'mores and adult beverages. The course goes around the central Meadow Lake, up Frost Hill and through the Conifer Collection, and then past the formal sort of English garden before returning to a marketplace set up outside the Visitor Center.

But all that is ancillary to the light show. It starts with a bit of slyness. The trees in the parking lot are festooned with colorful little lights, a lot of them green, the way you're used to seeing things in December. "There's a little tongue-in-cheek misdirection there," said Featherstone. "You put in some traditional themes so you can bounce off of them for the rest of the piece."

But once you pass the visitor center, you see soft spotlights (from the R2D2s) sweeping through a grove across the pond. At that grove, by waving your gloved hand over screen, you can choose a short nature film to play against the trees back across the way.

At other spots there are tinsel lighting effects on European beech and chandeliers hung with whimsy in a forest setting. You can hug a juniper or sing to a black walnut and watch the surrounding lighting effects change in response. And throughout, there is dramatic uplighting, showcasing skeletal branches or the way the colors mute themselves against pine needles.

Most of these set pieces are visible from multiple points on the walk, providing a layered visual effect and multiple perspectives. And while it may not be apparent to the naked eye, around you there is a master plan, "the use of a conscious pan and progression of color which is synchronized throughout the arboretum, as if it is one giant attraction," said Featherstone.

To make it a little more special, Sue Wagner, the head of the project for the arboretum, said she is hoping for one extra ingredient, one more color to add to the exhibition's palette.

"We hope we get snow," Wagner said. "It'll be absolutely stunning here."

Even without precipitation, it's well worth making the drive to Lisle, bundling up and losing yourself in what can happen when you cast light out on a limb.