Jimmy Cook was standing in the check-out line in Walmart a few days ago when a woman he didn’t know approached him to ask him when he was going to put his Christmas lights up.
It’s not an uncommon question for Cook to receive, from friends, family, acquaintances or even strangers. Cook and his family have become somewhat famous around Lowndes County thanks to their Christmas decorations — a display involving hundreds of lights and dozens of inflatable figures and buildings, taking up at least two yards and lighting up the intersection of Ben Christopher Road and Fondren Drive in New Hope.
“I said, ‘They’re on,'” Cook said. “She said, ‘I just want to tell you how appreciative we are for what you do. It’s such a wonderful thing for our community.'”
It was the sort of conversation Cook likes to have, he said, since he displays the decorations to make people happy.
Cook and his wife Charlene began decorating in October, with the help of his son and next-door neighbor Jay Cook and his daughter Cindy Tingle. Every year, the whole family finds places in Jimmy’s — and occasionally Jay’s — yard for their favorite displays, which include everything from a lighted nativity scene on the front porch to inflatable airplanes with Peanuts comic characters in the cockpit.
Dozens of cars drive up and down the street to look and occasionally a driver will even pull over, get out and knock on Jimmy’s door to ask if he can walk through the yard for a closer look.
That’s fine with Jimmy, but two nights a year he and his family host an open house — or “open yard,” he said — for people to come and walk through the displays. Last year, he said, they had about 900 visitors in just one night.
Though the lights will be up until January, the open house nights are Friday and Saturday, starting shortly after dark between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
“We’ll be out there to meet them, serve hot chocolate and candy to the kids, and … tell them they can walk up and down,” Jimmy said. “When they drive up and down the road, people stop out there and look and look and look, but they don’t know they can come inside.”
Bringing people together
Jimmy has been setting up elaborate Christmas displays for 14 years, since his oldest granddaughter was 2. He bought some large inflatables he thought she’d enjoy and set them up in his yard along with his usual Christmas lights. Each year, he added more lights and more inflatables until one year — about five or six years ago, he said — someone knocked on the door and asked to walk through.
Every year there’s something new, he added. One of his favorite decorations, a white sign that says “Joy” in letters as tall as he is, was put up for the first time last year. This year’s newest addition is an inflatable green dragon, even taller, with wings that flap. It’s one the kids love, he said.
“The day after Christmas he (Jimmy) goes and buys all the Christmas lights 90 percent off for the next year and puts it in (a) storage room (for next year),” Jay said. “Columbus, Tupelo, Tuscaloosa, everywhere.”
The lights come down in January, but even then the family discusses what they plan to do next year and if anything needs to go in a different spot, Jimmy said. Then when they start decorating again the next fall, they have to remember what they decided back in January.
Jay calls the decorations “organized chaos.” In Jimmy’s front yard, which faces Ben Christopher Road, is the new dragon, the Joy sign, two nativity scenes and, in the front corner just by the intersection with Fondren Drive, a cluster of characters from children’s stories, including Hello Kitty and Disney characters such as Olaf, Elsa and Anna from the movie “Frozen,” decorations which Jimmy’s 7-year-old granddaughter oversees.
“Kids are excited about Elsa and Anna and all the characters,” Jimmy said.
In the part of the yard facing Fondren Drive, at the end of the driveway by the garage, are two inflatable mice cuddling under an arch which has mistletoe dangling from it. Jimmy says sometimes teenagers on dates get their pictures taken under the arch.
And in the side yard just next to the garage is Santa’s North Pole, full of lit-up penguins, polar bears, igloos and a huge inflatable sleigh being pulled by reindeer. The side yard also hosts buildings like Santa’s Workshop and Santa’s Pet House, which have windows that automatically open and close, and inflatable helicopters and airplanes with moving propellers. Throughout both yards are trees strung mostly with red lights.
Jimmy said he doesn’t have a favorite decoration. His favorite part of the lights every year is being able to meet people who stop to look at them.
“Last year we had some people come through that I worked with … 20, 30 years before that I hadn’t seen,” Jimmy said. “… We had a great time talking, reminiscing about those things. We even had some relatives that we hadn’t seen in a long time come up and of course we invited them into the house.”
For Jay, who has lived in New Hope his whole life and works at BankFirst, the best part of the lights is seeing many of the same people he meets in the community, but in a more light-hearted atmosphere rather than behind an office desk.
“The cheesiest way to say it is it brings people together,” he said. “You say it on movies and stuff, but it kind of does.”
How to go
■ WHAT: Jimmy and Charlene Cook’s Christmas display
■ WHEN: Friday and Saturday starting between 5:30 and 6 p.m.
■ WHERE: 32 Fondren Dr. in New Hope
■ HOW MUCH: Free
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