Santa and his team of reindeer take off into the night sky. Shepherds and angels gather around Jesus in a Nativity scene. Thousands of lights set the yard aglow while a steady stream of onlookers slowly drives past to take in the sights.
This is a typical Christmas scene at the Emery and Hendren families’ homes. Each year, the families go to extremes to spread Christmas cheer by decorating their homes with yuletide light displays for others to enjoy.
The Emerys’ impressive light display took first place last year in the Holiday Lighting Contest sponsored by Westlakes hardware store, Coca-Cola, the Missourian, the city of Columbia, and Columbia Parks and Recreation.
Judging for the Westlakes contest took place this year Saturday through Monday, with tours on Monday. The contest was judged by people from Westlakes and the Missourian.
There are no categories, so the contestants are, “all in it together, which makes judging trickier and harder,” said Steve Evers, a recreation specialist from Columbia Parks and Recreation. “What some people like is not what other people like. That’s what is good about getting a lot of people involved. What some think is extravagant, some think is over the top. Each display is judged individually on their own. There are no special criteria.”
Nearly all of the Emerys’ decorations are homemade.
“The little wood train in the front yard has been there for 31 years. We built it for our son John’s first Christmas. We put it up wherever we live,” Sharon Emery said.
She said the homemade decorations have been a joint project over the years. “My husband likes to build thing. He did all of the construction, wood working and welding. He made the life-size wooden sleigh, and I made the Santa and Mrs. Claus dolls.”
The detailed Christmas scene includes more than 17,000 lights and 2,000 feet of extension cords, and it uses 9,775 watts of electricity. “My husband has all circuits of our house carefully balanced so we don’t blow fuses,” Emery said. “He knows just how much electricity each circuit in the house can carry, and he even utilizes the circuits for the air conditioner.”
The display at the Emerys’ house costs the family 65 cents an hour, but the cost is not an issue for Sharon Emery. “I just love watching people come by,” she said. “We just have fun seeing the reaction of the people to the lights. Grown-ups act like kids.” The Emerys try to add a new piece each year, but they have no new additions this year. “Last year my husband made me a fountain with a swan pond, but this year he was busy with an addition to our house. We are thinking about new additions all the time. We have a 3 acre corner lot on a court, so there’s room to expand,” Emery said.
This year the display took the Emerys three full days to put up. They started working on it over Thanksgiving to make sure everything was up by the first Sunday of Advent. “We had people come help us this year,” Emery said. “My husband is 60, and he climbs these trees to put the decorations up. We all stand around the ladder when he goes up there.”
The Emerys’ tradition started because “we never lived close to our families, and this was a way to make the holidays special for our kids,” Emery said. “Now we do it for the whole community.
“What I love seeing is the cars that drive by so slowly and the feeling of knowing that they are enjoying what they are seeing,” she said.
Residents and visitors appreciate the Emerys’ yearly display so much that the family has even received fan mail. “I got love letters in my mailbox addressed to ‘Dear light people,’” Emery said. “People actually wrote me thank you notes and put them in my mailbox.”
Emery’s favorite memory of her Christmas light display happened last year. “Last Dec. 1, I looked out and saw three huge 15-passenger vans parked on my curb,” Emery said. “I saw flashbulbs flashing and people running all over the yard. A group of Chinese educators from Beijing, China, were out there and they were so excited and so delighted to see Christmas lights before they went home on Dec. 2. Now there are pictures of our house in China.”
The family’s display is so impressive that people come from all around to admire their effort to spread the joy of Christmas. “We have tour buses drive by, and our friends in Indiana saw us on the Fox network last year,” Emery said.
Last year the Emerys joined with the Columbia Board of Realtors to collect voluntary donations from onlookers.
“We raised over $2,000 for Habitat for Humanity, and we also donated our $300 prize for winning the home decorating contest,” Emery said. This year the family plans to collect for five nights instead of just two or three, and the American Society of Home Inspectors will also be helping raise funds. “It’s one more opportunity to give the people of Columbia a chance to share,” Emery said.
The Hendrens entered the Holiday Lighting Contest this year with between 3,000 and 4,000 light bulbs illuminating their yard.
“We have about 85 angels, some of which move and two 6- by 12-foot signs on the roof. We try to add at least one piece every year. We added six to eight angels this year,” Joe Hendren said.
Hendren said he had to put a 400-amp service in the house. “Most houses have 200 amps, but we had to add another 200 for the display. Every item in the yard is lit up in some way,” he said. This extra voltage inflates the Hendrens’ December electric bill to about $370.
The Hendrens’ tradition started about five or six years ago.
“I was traveling and I found a little nativity scene and bought it and my wife liked it. We’re real religious people, so I don’t like candy canes or Santa Clauses,” Joe Hendren said. “From there we just started adding stuff. We started making and buying things. We have items from Tennessee, Georgia, Arkansas, Minnesota, Conrad, St. Louis and Warrenton.”
Joe Hendren’s favorite part of his display is the traffic that comes by, he said. “We get Christmas cards from people we don’t know just saying thanks for the display.”
“That was a real blessing that people enjoyed our display,” Peggy Hendren said. “We really want people to remember what Christmas is about and you can’t come by here and miss the true meaning of Christmas.”
It typically takes the Hendrens about a month to put up their display.
“We start around Nov. 1,” Joe Hendren said. “My wife does most of it. She brings each item in first, checks it and sometimes changes the colors of the bulbs.” The display starts coming down after the first of the year.
Peggy Hendren said, “Everything is customized. I change the garland on the wings to make them more feathery. I am very particular.”