Yankee Classic: 40,000 Christmas Lights in Killingly, CT
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.”
December 16, 1967 — Whipple and his stepson, 20-year-old Edmond Bourassa, were decorating their house with a modest display of Christmas lights. They liked the chance to be together. Whipple always worked long hours overseeing town cemeteries and handling monument customers, and his stepson had just returned from 13 months’ duty in Vietnam. The young man, still known by his childhood nickname, “Tubby,” had gotten a job with the town highway department. The two men didn’t have too many lights to put on the house, so the work didn’t take long.
“Hey,” Tubby said, “the house looks good, huh?”
“You’re right,” Whipple said. “It does look good. Yes, it does.”
“Maybe we can add more lights next year,” Tubby said.