I’ve never spent a Christmas without The Christmas House.
As the youngest grandson in my branch of the Blackwell family, I’ll celebrate my 50th birthday this summer. The house, built in 1884 as the homeplace of Flavus Foster, passed eventually to his granddaughter, my grandmother, Doris Blackwell. And, about eight months before I was born, she and my grandfather, James, decided to add some modest outdoor Christmas decorations to their home.
I’ll let my dad, Terry, pick up the story from there.
“In 1973, it was probably Mama’s idea to have Daddy to start it, because she thought of all kinds of things for him to do,” he said with a laugh. “Anyway, he started it then. We didn’t help for the first two or three years, he just did everything by himself.”
“Everything” wasn’t much with those early, minimal decorations. But as years passed, things were added. James built a merry-go-round for dolls. He made a workable Ferris wheel. He kept adding elements, and Doris kept thinking of more things to add.
“I would come over here to help him, and I’d ask him what he needed me to do first,” he said. “And he say ‘go in there and talk to your Mama and tell her not to be thinking so much to add’.”
We’re a long way from those first few, minimal years. Now, the house is known throughout the area for the joy it brings at Christmas. You might think you know it from a news story, or a TV feature, or a magazine article, or word of mouth.
You might. But some of you really know it because James Blackwell made a promise. And because Sandra Montgomery and her husband Bill, my aunt and uncle, made a promise of their own.
CONTINUING THE TRADITION
My grandmother died on December 1, 1999. Before she did, she thought of one more thing for my grandfather to do.
She wanted him to keep the lights on. He did it without another thought. He even switched them on the night she died.
And, when Sandra and Bill moved into the big white house on Foster Rd., James had a question for them.
“You ARE going to keep doing the lights?”
They told him they’d do it as long as they were able. That was in 2005.
“We’re still going wide open,” Bill said.
It’s easy to take the tradition for granted if you’re part of it. I honestly didn’t grasp that every family didn’t do something like the Christmas house until well into my teens. Later, I helped Papa string some of those lights (and was once very nearly maimed by a flying hammer, but that’s another story). But even I can’t fathom the work it takes to keep the display going. There’s a core group of volunteers, involving Bill and Sandra, my Dad and stepmother Pattie, and several others. There used to be multiple phone calls, now there’s a group text. And the work that used to add stress and frustration to Thanksgiving now begins in late September. Really, though, 2024 preparations have already started. Sketches for improvements are being made. Notes are being put on paper. Decorations will go on sale just after Christmas. It’s a never-ending process.
It's also a throwback, as a lot of the displays are made by hand, right at the house.
Pattie and Sandra are both artists, and are capable of creating pretty much anything they see. The fact that so much of the display at The Christmas House is homemade adds to the charm – and to the work. It’s something they enjoy, though.
“That’s one of my favorite parts,” Sandra said. “Let’s create that. Let’s start from something – a piece of plywood, maybe some metal or something – and make something we’ve seen that we want to use.”
A LASTING LEGACY
One of the most enduring things about The Christmas House is the memories it creates.
“The first time I ever saw it was eye-opening,” Pattie said. “That was a long time ago, back before everything was so grown up and you could see it from Compton Bridge. There was just this halo of light. And the “Peace on Earth” sign on the roof was my favorite.”
I can walk around the house during twilight, just before the lights come on, and see some of the old stuff in my mind. The “Noel” sign that I couldn’t string correctly to save my life as a teenager. The glow from the porch that lets me know the fire’s lit in the living room. Too many Santas to count, and the ever-improving Nativity scene, and the ancient, heavy merry-go-round.
I remember my grandparents from Christmas Eves past, and gifts from the Knoxville World’s Fair, and summer cookouts, and a deft touch in the kitchen. I remember them from heartwarming laughter, and the arc of flame reflected in a welder’s mask, and a shop with every tool you could conceive, and the best fried apple pies you ever tasted.
Y’all remember them from their commitment to a Christmas display. And they’d love that.
The 50th anniversary of anything is special, and this year at The Christmas House is certainly no exception. From a Nativity scene that featured a Mary figure with sticks instead of arms to a full-scale Island of Misfit Toys is a huge leap. What has kept it going, kept it evolving, kept it moving forward, is the overwhelming response the display generates.
“I was outside two nights ago, and there was a couple in a pickup truck coming through,” Bill said. “He asked if I owned the place, and I said yessir, me and my wife. He said ‘we’ve never been here before. I’m from New Hampshire’, and his wife was from New Jersey. They live over in Gaffney, and have been here 10 years, and had never been before. They were literally about to cry when they went through. That’s what keeps us going.”
There’s something else, too. There’s the reason James and Doris started.
“That, plus the notes, the cards, the letters that are put in the donation box,” Sandra said. “It’s heartwarming and touching. It’s very touching to read some of them. Some of them, you can tell there are dark spots in their life, and that they need this at Christmastime especially. That’s the time of the year that people are missing loved ones, and they can come and go around here and it brightens their day.
At Dad’s funeral, the preacher said that James and Doris Blackwell lit the hill up, and that’s the truth. They lit it up with lights, but it’s also lit up with the love of Jesus. So it means a lot to people that come around.”