Yankee Classic: 40,000 Christmas Lights in Killingly, CT

4.00 avg. rating (79% score) - 3 votes
Whipple's Winter Wonderland

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!”



“Wicked awesome!”

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.”

Memories do.

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.

“OK,” said Whipple. “We’ll do that. We will definitely do that.”

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.”


Leave a Comment

Enter Your Log In Credentials