FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS, THE RESIDENTS OF JAMES STREET ESTATES HAVE SHARED THEIR ELABORATE HOLIDAY HOME DECORATIONS WITH THE COMMUNITY
Christmas preparations begin early in the Smith home - October to be exact. Peggy, 71, and Dale, 77, need the extra time because they have more than 7,000 twinkle lights to inspect, test out and, if necessary, replace before Dec. 1.
The Smiths are part of a cadre of residents at James Street Estates, a mobile home park north of Sunset Square that has been upholding a tradition for more than 15 years. Each first of December nearly all of the residents of this small retirement community transform their yards and their neighborhood into a veritable winter wonderland.
"It's something to see, " says Dale Smith.
The impressive displays are famous around Whatcom County, attracting thousands of people each year. Cars are directed in an orderly, one-way zigzag through the park by illuminated curbs and arrows.
"You see the eyes and the mouths of the children and that encourages you so much, " says Don Peterson, 74. "That's really all it takes."
The James Street Estates is an association owned entirely by the residents. The decision to create an annual Christmas display was already in the works at the time homeowners purchased the park back in 1995.
"At that time, we were all younger and shared the responsibility of Christmas decorations, " recalls Dale Smith. "Probably there were about 25 to 30 men and women who were involved in helping."
"It just seemed like a nice thing to do, " says Peterson. "We figured this is our home and we all wanted to please people. We didn't have to do it, but we enjoy doing it."
Each yard is unique.
There are palm trees and Christmas trees, trumpeting angels and grazing reindeer. Candy canes line one walkway and polar bears and penguins tumble about on another lawn.
At Peterson's yard an illuminated train makes its rounds, while an oversized snowman is the highlight at the Wouters home.
"It's great, " says Darlene Wouters, 78. "People always want a picture with the big snowman."
Most residents line their curbs and decorate their street trees with white lights, a safety decision to help delineate the road.
"I love it when all the trees are white, " says Dale Smith. "It looks like heaven all the way down the road."
Cars move through the park at a crawl as children press their noses to the glass and squeal with delight. Parents park the car just long enough to snap a photo.
"I think above all we do it for the families who come through, " says Peggy Smith.
"It's brought us some wonderful times, " adds Darlene Wouters. "We have been part of people's lives. They take pictures here in our yards. They grab our (toy) animals and hug them. The kids just love it, and that feels so good."
For many visitors, the James Street Estates Christmas displays have become part of their own family traditions. Knowing this, the residents try to keep their yards looking fresh.
"We vary it around, " says Dale Smith. "We'll use some stuff one year and something else the next."
"Many of us buy something new each year, " says Peterson. "And each year I buy another 15 to 20 boxes of lights."
"We're always looking for something new, " says Peggy Smith. "And then we get it and we have to try to figure out where we are going to put it! But we try to add something new every year. We kind of try to out-do each other."
In addition to their store-bought finds, Dale and Peggy have hand-made some of their decorations, including a 4-foot by 8-foot wooden Christmas card that reads: "Merry Christmas from the Smiths!"
The residents aren't exempt from the excitement the lights bring and can often be found walking or driving around the park themselves.
"Even our families want to watch, " says Darlene Wouters, "so we follow the route too!"
"I like to go around myself at least two or three times, " says Peterson.
The displays are a source of joy and of pride. Not only are all the lights around the park purchased and put up by the residents - they haven't received community donations for years - but the 20-plus members of the original association continue to be among the park's most active participants, despite being 15 years older than when they got started.
"Putting up all those lights, plus all the curbs and trees, for most of us it's getting to be a lot of work, " says Dale Smith. "I think everybody in here deserves one heck of a lot of credit."
Dewey Wouters, 81, agrees that it gets harder on his knees each year, but he feels the motivation to continue each holiday season when he sees the joy the displays bring to visitors.
"When some little kid in a car says, 'Thank you so much, ' that's all it takes, " says Dewey Wouters.
Dale Smith feels that each resident's pride in his home and his community is particularly evident during the Christmas season. Not only are residents investing in numerous decorations and maintenance, but for one month their lives are impacted nightly by the steady stream of visitors. And the popularity of the event with the public certainly hasn't waned.
"It's pretty normal to get between 450 and 700 cars in one night, " he says.
"In the evening, after about 4:30, we try to stay home as much as possible, " he adds. "You can't back out of the driveway too easily after that."
The traffic can mean it will take 45 minutes to get through the small park when it is busy
"I would say between 4,000 and 5,000 cars - or more - go through here in December, " says Dewey Wouters.
For one week prior to opening night, a committee of eight or nine - run by Peterson in recent years - coordinates dozens of tricky timers and extension cords, erects signs and helps residents who want to participate but aren't physically capable.
"It is a real community, " says Dewey Wouters. "When we get ready, if a lady's husband has passed away, we go help her with her lights too. Anybody who wants decorations gets them."
"The ladies do a fabulous job too, " says Dale Smith. "They come down and put on sandwiches and soup. We'll do one end (of the park) and then take a break. We eat and shoot the breeze. Then we do the other end."
"It makes you feel like you accomplished something, " says Dewey Wouters.
"Most people here are really proud of this park, " adds Dale Smith. "I know I wouldn't leave for anything in the world."
Tasha Johnson is a Bellingham freelance writer.