L et there be light, some of the area's leading attractions say each year as Christmas approaches. And Chicagoans respond unto them by going to see the light, and it is good.

This year's collective outdoor glow begins this week with the Morton Arboretum's Illumination, a mile-long walk through trees, hedges, a hillside and a pond artfully set agleam.

Lincoln Park Zoo's ZooLights flips the switch on its riot of LED bulbs next week, and Brookfield Zoo's Holiday Magic follows in the first week of December.

And thus are hundreds of thousands of people lured away from wintertime hunkering down and
into communal experiences involving walks in parks amid artificially brightened trees and animals.

When I was younger and grumpier, I used to think the zoo displays weren't distinctive enough to justify the wattage. Now I bring my family to at least one of them each year because traditions are good, making an effort is better, and seeing ice chunks carved with chain saws is all of that and then some.

Other people make other institutions' holiday celebrations into their own traditions. The other two most prominent in the area are probably the Museum of Science and Industry's Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light, beginning its 74th season with a tree lighting ceremony Thursday; and Chicago Botanic Garden's Wonderland Express, beginning next ´┐╝week.

Each comes up with something new to tout each year. It isn't exactly an amusement park needing to construct the next huge roller coaster, but it's close. More significant than any new attraction, executives at the parks say, is the weather. Warmer evenings, like those anticipated this winter, bring people out.

Illumination, the most restrained of the lights displays, is getting a little less so. There are more lights this year and more areas dressed up with light, including new displays of rippling lights on the central pond and of giant light ornaments on a hillside.

But the aim remains to illuminate the arbor, to call visitors' attention to trees in that season when people don't usually pay them much mind, said John Featherstone, the lighting designer who has guided the display, entering its third year when it opens Friday.

"We wanted people to understand that (trees in winter) are no more dead than we are when we're asleep," he said.

Featherstone is particularly excited about the "tendrils of light" designed to accentuate Meadow Lake. They replace glowing orbs in the water that were attached to marine buoys.

"Did we like it?" he asked about the buoy display. "We liked it. Did we love it? We didn't really love it."

The direction of the walk gets reversed, beginning around the lake. The Symphony Woods experience, where lights play along with music recorded by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, becomes more traditional this year; the music will be from the "Nutcracker."

And a new area, the hedges to the west, will now see lights synced with music, as well.

All of this is made possible, he noted, by LED technology, which "lets us put on a better experience," he said, because it is highly customizable and puts out much more light per unit of energy used.

"My grandmother used to say, 'You want to spend more money on your outfit than your underwear,' " Featherstone said. "By using LED technology we can literally and figuratively put a lot more of the money where the audience can see it."

Illumination will run nightly through Jan. 2. The zoos' light shows have less regular schedules, focusing on weekends and days around the holidays.

ZooLights will mark its first year of being all-LED, said Joshua Rupp, director of events. Because the free event drew a record 550,000 people last year, the North Side zoo will now kick it off a half hour earlier, at 4:30 p.m., and will be open for 31 days, up from last year's 28, said Rupp. Ice carving moves to a central area so the crowds that gather can see from all sides. And new light features include a dancing and jumping seal display.

Three special events are included: An adults-only night, for those who object to strollers underfoot; a Brew Lights beer tasting event (it sold out last year); and a zoo members only night.

If you think stringing more than 2 million lights is not something that can happen in an evening, you are correct.

"We start Christmas in early August," Rupp said. "Depending on the weather it takes us until about March to break it all down."

At Brookfield, where Holiday Magic debuts Dec. 5, the zoo began using LED about four years ago and by last year was all-in with the technology, said Ken Grzeslo, events marketing manager. (Colored lights only joined the party in 2004, he noted.)

New for this year are two big interactive displays: a tic-tac-toe game on the East Mall, and a Polar Lights display on the west. The Polar Lights have 30 mini klieg lights, a musical backdrop, and five control panels that let visitors make the displays behave as they like, Grzeslo said. There were no dolphin shows during last year's Holiday Magic because of births, he said, but this year there will be a 6 p.m. show on nights of the event.

A key point of all these displays, of course, is to draw people to outdoor attractions in those months when they might not normally go.

Said Grzeslo, "It helps us pay the bills at the end of the year, keep the animals fed."