For 36 years and counting, the unincorporated community of Finland has displayed a sight uncommon to the northern Minnesota skyline: an illuminated Christmas cross overlooking the town. Perched high on Silver Hill, the cross is a bright beacon of light during long winter nights.
The couple behind it, Ron and Brenda Van Bergen, live near the base of Silver Hill. Ron headed up the construction and installation of the original cross in 1983, and with the encouragement of the community and help from neighbors, they have been maintaining this familiar fixture ever since.
The seed of the idea was first planted during Brenda's childhood. She grew up just a stone's throw from their current home, and cherishes memories of sledding and tromping around the hill as a "Silver Hill Kid."
As a child, she asked the adults if they could put up an illuminated Christmas star on her beloved hillside. Electrical access to the hillside was not available, however, so her dream had to go dormant.
Decades later, this old dream finally came true in a different form when her husband, Ron, decided to put up a lighted cross. By then, Brenda's brother had built a house on the side of Silver Hill, providing closer electrical access.
Just before Christmas in 1983, Ron gathered a group of neighbors to build a cross, carry it up the hill, string it with lights and anchor it using two birch logs and four guy wires. During the first year, 400 feet of extension cords carried electricity to the cross; in the second year, these were replaced with heavy electrical wire.
One year, Ron and his neighbors were surprised to see an empty patch of sky where the cross should have been. They found out it had fallen over. Although the wood was damaged, they were undeterred and patched it back together with scrap lumber.
Several years later, in 1999, Ron and his neighbors built the current cross out of green, treated lumber. The cross is 24 feet high and 10 feet wide. It looks large from afar, but its scale is even more impressive up close.
Although the cross stands year-round, it is lit only around Christmas time. Every December, a crew of four or five neighbors gather to help Ron string up the lights. They carefully lower the heavy cross, attach strands of colorful C9 lights totaling 150 bulbs, and pivot it up again. It typically stays lit until the week after New Year's, when the lights are taken down to prevent weather damage and color fading.
Did they plan for the cross to become such a long term tradition?
"We never planned for it to go on for so many years," Ron said with a smile.
The cross caught on quickly as a Finland landmark, though.
"Now, if we didn't light the cross, we would be getting questions from disappointed neighbors," he said.
Although Ron and Brenda orchestrate it, they emphasized that the cross really is a community effort. Every year, their neighbors have generously contributed time, labor, materials, monetary donations, thank-you letters and words of support.
An elderly neighbor once described her view of the cross as she would drive down Minnesota Highway 1 into Finland: "As soon as I come over the hill, I know I'm home again."