Yankee Classic: 40,000 Christmas Lights in Killingly, CT
Hours later the young man pulled an old town sanding truck into Whipple’s driveway. There was something wrong with the mechanism that raised and lowered the dump bed, and Tubby wanted to check it out. Whipple looked out the window, saw his stepson working under the raised load, kicked open the door, and hollered to him to get out from under the load of sand. As Tubby moved, the sleeve of his coat caught on a lever. The dump bed came down on top of him, killing him instantly.
The memory of Whipple’s last conversation with his stepson is very much with him and never more than at Christmas. When he decorated their house the year after the tragedy, he added more lights and won third place in the town’s annual contest. The following year, he added more and finished second. He kept adding more every year, and for the next three years he won first place. Then the town asked him to help judge the contest instead of participating in it. Whipple agreed. Besides, he was already at work on his Winter Wonderland.
“Quite apart from the tragedy, the Winter Wonderland lets me lead what I guess you’d call a Jekyll-and-Hyde sort of life,” he explains. “There’s not much happiness around the monument business, you know? People come in all year long, and I can never look at them and smile and say, ‘Hi, there. It’s really good to see you,’ because it’s always tragedy that brings them in. Well, business keeps going because people die during the Christmas season, too, but when I move those monuments out and we set up the Winter Wonderland, things change quite a bit. And I get to smile and say, ‘It’s really good to see you,’ and they know I mean it.”
Very early in October workmen and volunteers begin moving the monuments out of the showroom, all 82 tons of them. The men take the animated displays out of storage, set them up, and test them, making repairs and adjustments wherever necessary. Then come the decorations and lights — 40,600 this year, 5,000 more than last year. The preparations take about two months, and the work is steady.
In November, Whipple takes a week off for his annual vacation. He and his wife, Barbara, go to New York City for the Thanksgiving Day parade. This year’s trip was Whipple’s 18th in a row. “The parade’s just wonderful,” he says. “It seems to get better all the time.” When he returns, he helps his workmen put the finishing touches on the year’s display and then begins planning his annual banquet. The night before the display opens to the public, he treats his workers and friends — of whom there are many — to a catered feast and a private showing of this year’s edition of the Winter Wonderland.
Whipple flips a switch, the power surges, and the lights go on. Reds, greens, whites, oranges, and blues. Big lights. Small lights. Minilights. Lights of all shapes and styles. They twinkle. They glitter. They sparkle. They flash. They herald the holiday season and they push back the night, and in that instant, Mervin R. Whipple knows that once again, he has kept his promise.
“Maybe we can add more lights next year,” Tubby said.
“OK,” said Whipple. “We’ll do that. We will definitely do that.”