Sunday, December 18, 2011

Griswold Tours Past


2009 Christmas Lights tour:

It was one of my favorite Christmas traditions growing up. A week or so before Christmas, the family would pile in the car and drive around, looking at everyone’s Christmas decorations.

I passed the tradition on to my son. Every year when he was small we’d drive to certain destination neighborhoods known for their extravagant Christmas displays. I can remember being in a long line of cars snaking our way through Louisville’s Lake Forest subdivision, where every house tried to outdo the next one.

But after your kids grow up and move away, the tradition seems to fade. I hadn’t done a Christmas Drive By in ten years.

Till Monday night. That’s when I gathered three of my young-at-heart friends. The four of us piled into Dick Cartwright’s, uh, vintage station wagon and began our Christmas Decorations Tour.

Now let’s be honest here. No one drives around looking for tasteful door wreaths or understated window candles.

You go for lights, bright lights, colorful lights, and lots of them, icicle lights dangling from gutters, multicolored strands outlining a roof line, lights around doors and windows, encircling trees and engulfing porches. Throw in a few holiday figurines, a nativity scene or three, and you have the makings of, what? Kingsport’s answer to the Griswold’s!
So, yes, we were looking for a house that lit up the nighttime sky, much like the home of the Griswold’s, the Christmas-light-happy family in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”

In Gibsontown we found a house where it looked as if Picasso had hung the lights on the trees.

On Watauga we found homes decorated to look like gingerbread houses.
We found folks who incorporated basketball goals and birdbaths into their holiday decorations.

And yes, we even found the inevitable: Santa watching over his flock by night. A few folks do indeed position their nativity scenes a tad too close to their Santa and his sleigh figures.

Overall we were a little disappointed at the paucity of Christmas lights. Dick commented, “I think there are a lot of lights in the closet this year.”
Years ago it seemed every house decorated for the season.

We were about ready to give up for the night, with no Griswold casa in sight.
And then we hit the intersection of Bloomingdale Pike and the John B. Dennis By-Pass.
“Wow!” said Margy Clark.

“We have a winner,” exclaimed Jo Zimmerman.

There on the hill side were snowmen and reindeer and Snoopy and Scooby Do, Santa sitting on a John Deere tractor and in an airplane, and scores of lights and figures spread over a couple of hillside acres

I later discovered that this particular Christmas extravaganza has been written up in the paper twice before, in 2004 and 2006. But I had never read about it.

It’s put on by the Sam Click family. Sam and his late wife Theda began it some 25 years ago with a simple nativity scene. Every year they added something new. Slowly it grew and grew. Boy, did it grow.

We found what we were looking for: the Christmas spirit in colored lights.
We all went home to nestle up all snug in our beds, with visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads.

Except maybe for Dick, who went home wondering how they would find the burned-out bulb in those miles of cords.

(2011 addition: Sam's relatives have put out the lights again this year.)



2010 Christmas Lights Tour:

If you believe in good omens – and who doesn’t want to believe in good omens at Christmas? – then we had the best of omens Wednesday night when the Griswold Gang began its second annual Christmas Lights Tour.

We were careening down Reservoir Road in the tour bus and party wagon – Dick Cartwright’s vintage station wagon - heading toward our first stop, Matthew Strickler’s light show at 3300 Reservoir Road, when suddenly the tour bus and party wagon came to a screeching halt. And before anyone could say “Spilled my damned eggnog,” all five of us were peering out the window at two giant red eyes.
And in unison, all five of the Griswold Gang exclaimed, “A reindeer!”

As Rudolph scurried back up Bays Mountain, unharmed by his encounter with five holiday revelers, we knew it was going to be a good Christmas Lights Tour.
The Griswold Gang is so named in honor of Clark Griswold, the star of the movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and perpetrator of one of the world’s most dazzling Christmas light displays - 25,000 lights in all when he finally gets it up and running.

Each year we load up and head out in search of Kingsport’s most spectacular Christmas light displays and report back to my readers.

Last year the Griswold Gang was composed of me, Dick, Jo Zimmerman and Margy Clark. Kay Newell heard it was so much fun that she asked to join us this time.

We aren’t searching for tasteful door wreaths or understated window candles. We want houses with bright lights, colorful lights, and lots of them. We want houses that proudly light up the nighttime sky. And we found them, thanks to reader suggestions.

The Strickler house on Reservoir Road was a good place to start, especially when you have an up close and personal with Rudolph.

Over the course of the evening we traveled from Bays Mountain to Bloomingdale, from Fairacres and Greenacres to Borden Mill Village and Gibsontown.

Here are our highlights:

Dave Gostomski’s display, complete with Santa in the window, at 383 Grandview Court, on the other side of Warrior’s Path.

Megan and Nathan Hensley’s hillside display at 2229 Stuffle Heights. There’s so much illumination you can see the house from Bloomingdale AND Wadlow Gap Road!

Bill Roberts’ Christmas display at 460 Westfield Place just off Rock Springs Road. It’s a beacon in the midst of farm country.

Paul and Marsha Carter’s corner of light at Conway and Clover Street.

The house on Tri-Cities Crossing road at the intersection with I-81 that was brought to my attention by Rick Heppert. The Interstate exit ramp is in their back yard. Blowups surround three sides of this house!

There were two absolute “must see” Christmas light displays on our tour.
The first – and last year’s winner – is the Sam Click house just off John B. Dennis at Bloomingdale. Don’t worry, you don’t need an exact address. Just get in the neighborhood and you will see it.

The Griswold Gang voted and it was unanimous: the Click house gets our Griswold Lifetime Achievement Award. No other Christmas light display in Kingsport comes close. It’s not even fair to compare any of the others to this one. The Click family starts putting it up the day after Halloween and it takes till Thanksgiving to assemble the entire display. It’s no coincidence that Sam Click and Santa Claus shared the same initials, SC.

Now the sad part. This is probably the last year for the display. Sam died in September and the family is unsure what they will do next year.

So race, don’t cruise to see this display. (Just watch out for those pesky red light cameras.)

But the good news is we have a worthy successor, an heir apparent, Bill Rhoten’s house at 1425 Plainview in Litz Manor near KFC. From Warpath turn on Sanford and drive a short ways. You’ll see it.

It even looks a lot like the Griswold house.

Bill told me, “I love doing lights. When I was a kid, my family would load up in the car and go looking at lights. There was always one that stood out every year and I knew even then, if I ever got the chance, I was going to try to be ‘that’ guy.”

And now Bill is that guy.

Bill is a single dad so it’s more than just a light show for him.

“It's taken me a long time to realize that it wasn’t all the neat stuff under the tree, waiting on us when we walked into our living room on Christmas morning, but the time I had spent with my family that made the holidays so special. Before my Mom passed away, she ask me to never let my two children Clay and Olivia forget her, and if I could, never let them forget our traditions we celebrated at Christmas because this is what they will remember as they get older, and maybe they will pass it on.”
Bill, Clay and Olivia welcome your visit.

“The way I look at it, if driving by my house at Christmas can make someone smile and forget their problems, even for five minutes, I’m going to keep doing it. Who knows, there might be a kid in one of the cars driving by that will remember looking at lights with his family and might want to be that ‘light’ guy someday.”

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