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Curse the darkness, or plug into the season

On the east side and the west, holiday festivals light up family outings with sacred or secular appeal

Five minutes into a recent guided tour of the ZooLights Festival at the Oregon Zoo, the PR wrangler, Krista, had a problem: A rogue Santa was on the loose.

And you know what that means in 2002 É pedophile alert! Secure the kids! Lockdown, Mayday, somebody check the koalas!

Actually, there was no panic, just urgent efficiency. A few crackly conversations on the walkie-talkies later, and Santa was being interviewed about his credentials. As he stood pleading his case, illuminated by the rotating fish lights that greet visitors at the gates, the families who had braved the cold carried on in blissful innocence.

ZooLights has been going for 15 years now and manages to keep up with the times. This year, light-emitting diodes are hot. An avenue of trees stands dotted with a thousand points of red and blue, each one drawing a tiny amount of power. While the average bulb here draws 5 watts of power per set of 12 lights, LEDs are 10 times as efficient and have a pinpoint clarity.

But that's all adult stuff for adults to talk about. What the hordes of nippers were thinking was something like this: 'Ooh, a reindeer! Ooh, swans! Ooh, monkeys!'

An extra 50-cent ticket gets you on the zoo train, which makes a loop of the grounds, where more animated lights have been set up by the side of the tracks.

'Ooh! A diving penguin! Ooh! Hippos in ripples!'

The train is a bit like the Tokyo subway, complete with helpers to ease riders into position.

As well-heeled parents bundle their fleeced-up offspring into the carriages, the massed ranks of parked strollers on the platform bring to mind the parking lot at Autzen Stadium in Eugene. (Train tip: Sit on this newspaper to keep the cold out. And get a forward-facing seat or you'll be looking at a lot of wiring layouts and wooden frames.)

Much of the design work, which is quite beautiful, is done by 10 volunteers who work all year on the displays.

Rex Wheeler, a computer expert who moved to Portland and volunteered at the zoo to meet people, is responsible for some of the animated displays, such as the flying reindeers that form an arch over the bridge.

Children seem to be extra-fascinated by the dragon scaling another path.

Ooh! A snake!

Here's a bonus: Some of the swing-shift animals show up, too. One evening a couple of Amur tigers prowled around on their island (no one was going to drape Christmas lights in their front yard), and some small tree kangaroos peered out from under their glass-fronted living room.

Leopards, too, were in the house, but nothing was as bright and interesting as an electric kangaroo with a joey peeping out of her pouch.

Ooh! A giant butterfly!

And talk about rare species Ñ it's a pleasure to see animated figures that are not trademarked to death by some megacorporation, designed to push an endless cycle of consumption. Until Monsanto and Disney perfect the glow-in-the-dark bunny, this is the place to come.

There's little stuff to buy Ñ a random collection of crafts (wooden toys, hippie jewelry). If you can't survive on hot chocolate alone, there's the Cascade Grill with its nightly holiday buffet ($11.95 for adults and $6.95 for kids).

The polar bears toboggan, the giraffe grazes, the ostrich hides its head in the sand Ñ all the behavioral clichŽs that zoos usually fail to provide are here on a platter.

Marketers have analyzed the dreams of small children and concluded that they like to dream about simple, brightly colored animals (Barney, fluffy chicks, etc.). ZooLights are just as good as a dream, and they're more reliable. A leisurely loop on foot takes about 90 minutes, which is plenty to supply the memories of gullible children for months to come.

Even the adults looked happy.

Ñ Joseph Gallivan