Yankee Classic: 40,000 Christmas Lights in Killingly, CT
Yankee Plus Dec 2015
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Yankee classic from December 1991
The numbers involved in Whipple’s Winter Wonderland in Killingly, Connecticut, are staggering — 40,600 lights, 350 animated displays, more than 50,000 visitors every Christmas. But numbers don’t explain why it exists.
The cars are bumper-to-bumper in a cold December sleet on a country road in the town of Killingly, Connecticut. Drivers grow impatient. They are caught in the heart of a small village called Ballouville, and most of their cars are loaded with children. Small silhouettes bob up and down like figures on carousels. Every few minutes a car gives up in frustration. The driver pulls out of line, turns awkwardly around, and heads back toward the highway against nearly two miles of one-way traffic.
The minutes, like the cars, move slowly. But as the line rounds a corner, the starless sky brightens, as with the glow of an immense fire. One by one, cars pull off the road and park. Families walk single file toward the light. Infants and toddlers get to ride on their parents’ shoulders. Older youngsters are admonished to wait up. Grandparents move along gingerly. And invariably, as the travelers reach their destination, eyes widen, jaws drop, and the cries go up.
“Wow! Look at that!”
Before them lies Christmas, courtesy of Mervin R. Whipple, creator and proprietor of Whipple’s Winter Wonderland, a disarmingly grand, glitzy, and unique holiday shrine of lights, tableaux, and animated figures that has been drawing visitors from throughout the region for more than two decades. He has terraced his hillside and filled his place of business, Everlasting Memorials — he sells gravestones or, as he prefers to describe them, monuments — with 350 lighted displays and animated figures: reindeer, sheep, Victorian carolers, angels, stars of every size and description, wreaths, a large Nativity scene with animals, a tall tree of lights.
Dominating the hillside is a tiny stone chapel, decorated to the tip of its spire with bright lights. The chapel is made of granites and marbles from around the world. Its interior is just large enough for Whipple, who is a justice of the peace, to conduct wedding ceremonies; he has married nearly 1,100 people since he built the chapel in 1979.
Near the chapel is a small wooden covered bridge that leads visitors to an upper terrace where more displays await. Inside large windowed cases, each of them up to 32 feet long, are stuffed, animated animals — squirrels, skunks, foxes, beavers, bears, penguins, raccoons, as well as elves, cartoon characters, and Eskimos — all enjoying the season.
A lighted Statue of Liberty overlooks the display from a rooftop. Nearby is a big American flag made of colored lights. Atop the roof of the main showroom is a huge toy soldier in parade dress. The big room below him is packed with animated figures. A long line leads up to the doorway where Whipple himself, clad in a crimson sport jacket, greets every visitor, shakes every hand, and keeps track of the numbers with a mechanical counter. Their numbers have increased every season. Last year, between the first Sunday in December and the first Sunday after New Year’s, 52,316 people — that’s more than triple Killingly’s entire population — came from 37 states and 17 foreign countries. The town has had to pass an ordinance declaring the road to Whipple’s one-way, but even that measure has proven inadequate.
“The numbers are important,” he adds. “I have to be sure the place is holding its own. As long as the numbers keep increasing, and they have so far, then I know the displays are what they should be.”
It’s not a matter of money. Over the last two decades, Whipple has spent $360,000 on his wonderland, but admission is free. Visitors can make a donation or buy a postcard if they want to, but most do not. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been approached by someone wanting to set up concessions or amusement rides,” Whipple says. “I won’t even let charities set up here to solicit donations. When they come by, I make a contribution, but I won’t let them set up a booth or anything like that. That’s not the point,” he says. “Money’s got nothing to do with it.”