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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow CHRISTMAS CARD IN LIGHTS

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CHRISTMAS CARD IN LIGHTS

FAMILY TRADITION: Cheryl Zacharias and her great-granddaughter Rylee Wrae Wilcox pose in front of Zacharias' home. Zacharias is delighted that three generations of her family have enjoyed her Christmas lights. (The Observer/GARY FLETCHER).
FAMILY TRADITION: Cheryl Zacharias and her great-granddaughter Rylee Wrae Wilcox pose in front of Zacharias' home. Zacharias is delighted that three generations of her family have enjoyed her Christmas lights. (The Observer/GARY FLETCHER).

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

JOSEPH — People in the little town at the end of the road really get into the spirit of decorating for Christmas. The art walk on Main Street is lit up, as are the neighborhoods.

Unrivaled among them is the lighted display at the house at the dead end of another road — North East Street.

Cheryl Zacharias was inspired decades ago by Margaret Burnside, for whom Zacharias worked at a gas station and store.

Cheryl and her husband, Bob, had four children in five years, and one car. When Cheryl would load the kids in the vehicle to pick up Bob at the mill, the children would say, "Let's go by and see Margaret's lights."

The Zacharias children enjoyed the Christmas lights on Margaret's house so much that Cheryl Zacharias promised them, "If we can ever afford it, we'll have lights at our house for you."

Eventually, Zacharias was able to purchase a nativity scene, which she still displays. By the time her children were in junior high school, she was able to start getting serious about fulfilling her promise of holiday illumination.

Now her lighted display is so big and bright that Pacific Power turns off the street light there. Her colored light show can be seen from the high school on the hill a half mile away.

After evening ballgames and other school events, people just have to go over to see what the display looks like.

Other times of heavy traffic are the first weekend after Thanksgiving, when she illuminates the display, and New Year's, after which it comes down.

• Special requests

Sometimes Zacharias gets a call from kids — who now have children of their own. They want their youngsters to be able to enjoy the Christmas lights just as they did when they were little.

"We traveled to his parents' for Christmas; could you leave your lights on until the weekend after New Year's?" one asked. Or the request might be to have the display illuminated for Thanksgiving, the only time a family will be visiting Joseph.

Zacharias is glad to comply. She appreciates knowing that it means so much to others, like the thank-you cards she gets. The notes are often from seniors, saying that the display made their Christmas. Once an entire elementary-school class wrote her thank-yous.

"It's for the little ones, the elderly, and for me," Zacharias said.

• Christmas card for all

"I do this instead of sending Christmas cards locally," Zacharias said. More people get to enjoy her lights than the number of people she would know to send cards to.

"I'd like to send cards, but I can't do both." She figures that the extra $50-75 electric bill is about what it would cost to purchase and send cards.

However, there's surely no comparison in the time invested. Her job, which she essentially does by herself, continues from just after Halloween until the display gets put away sometime after New Year's.

Anyone who has been frustrated trying to find the one dead lightbulb that made the string of Christmas tree lights go out can imagine keeping tabs on the thousands of lights at the Zacharias home.

Over the years, Zacharias has developed tactics to help her deal with the problem. She blistered her thumb gripping and pulling so many bulbs to check them. So her son-in-law Henry Kinsley invented a tester for her. When he later saw one on the market, he wished he had patented it.

Her high-profile display had little problem in the recent windstorm. Zacharias has been fighting the wind for years. A close look reveals that every couple of inches she has secured the lighting wires with nylon strapping tape.

• Technician needed

Zacharias' display, that began with a nativity scene in the yard, has expanded over the years to encompass the fences, driveway, outbuildings, rooftop and trees.

The display grew so large that she had an electrician install special circuits. Annually, he does a safety check of her wiring.

The display is now so complex that occasionally she has to call in an electrician to track down a problem that's got her stumped. This year it was her Christmas train, where a section had gone out.

Light faders give the train the appearance of puffing smoke, Winnie the Pooh winking and a snowman waving. She checked all 40 of the special connectors and everything else she could think of. It must be an internal component, such as a fader, she concluded, finally relenting, and called the electrician.

An electrician and his artist friend designed and constructed the train. It is so big that Zacharias can't even lift one section, so it remains up all year.

With fuses in her pockets, Zacharias is ever vigilant, doing all she can to keep the display working. "I do a lot of praying this time of year," she said.

• Maybe fuchsia next year

"I don't really have a theme," Zacharias said about the display that changes each year.

Already thinking about next year, Zacharias thinks she won't use the candy canes, dominant in this year's work of art. "But what will I put in their places?" she wonders.

When she eventually comes up with the answer, that might be what the next display is built around. She said she typically starts with one item like that, and then plays it by ear, with one creative impulse leading to another.

Colors featured this year are red, white and green. Last year's were red, white and blue. Maybe the featured color will be fuchsia next year, or teal. She already has those colors in stock. In her search for precise true colors of lights, she found a Nashville company "Christmas Done Bright."

"They're getting to know me on a first-name basis," Cheryl said, "They give me some pretty good deals."

Her husband is not so impressed. "Burn it, just burn it now," he says when a catalog arrives. He just shakes his head.

Cheryl, though, can shop at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it on line. She admits the specialty displays can be expensive. Her new Santa on her roof cost $250. "But, they're serviceable," she said about the long-lasting products.

Zacharias is not always able to afford something new each year, but she's always looking for ways to make the display more delightful. She can create a unique display so different by bringing some past item out of storage that people are surprised. They think it's new.

Last year, it was Zacharias who was surprised by something new. Her husband brought her Christmas present on a flatbed trailer — her own storage shed with a bow on it.

• Kids can count on her

Zacharias is determined to continue to make children as happy every Christmas as hers were delighted by Margaret Burnside.

"I've been out there with snow half way to my knees and with frozen hands," she said. "I don't care if it's 40 below, when it comes time to put them up, they're going up."

With the occasional exception of son-in-law Henry, Zacharias doesn't ask her family to help her. But laughing, she said she made her kids promise that when the year comes that she's no longer there to put up the lights, that they put lights on her casket.

And, the ever-faithful Henry is in her will to inherit the lights.

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