ATHENS – Garland and Patsy Pool aren't embarrassed if someone teases them about their Christmas buying habits.

The couple is often spotted shopping for holiday lights while garden centers are still setting out pumpkins, buggies piled high with boxes of colorful decor.

It's to be expected when you have about 35 acres in which to create whimsical scenes and jaw-dropping light-scapes.

The Pools own Christmas Park Land of Lights, a 1.5-mile drive-through attraction, located at Loop 7 and Patterson Road in Athens. It features more than 4 million lights, 50 motion-controlled scenes and 2,000 wood cutouts.

They've been throwing open the gates to their attraction for 19 years and running, sacrificing their own holiday celebrations for others' enjoyment.

But these creative Athens grandparents, married 54 years, don't seem to mind – their beloved Christmas Park is a labor of love that grows more special with each passing year.

"It's something we enjoy," Pool said. "We may never get it finished."

‘LIKE THE GRISWOLDS'

The busy couple owns both the holiday park and a swimming pool company, juggling both throughout the year to keep the lights on.

At one time they had so-called normal jobs – he's an engineer, she worked in banking.

But their lives took an unexpected turn the day Gibson's Discount Center had a sale on Christmas lights.

"We got some and had our house all lit up that year," Pool said. "We looked like the Griswolds."

For the unfamiliar, National Lampoon's 1989 classic, Christmas Vacation, depicts the hilarity of the Griswold family's efforts to decorate their home in time for the holidays.

The Pool family had so much fun with its lights that first year, it decided to buy more the next, adding themes and colorful characters to the decor.

Much like a well-nourished mushroom, the spectacle just grew and grew.

When the family relocated to Athens a few years later, they snatched up several acres along State Loop 7 to continue the tradition and the rest, as they say, is history.

A NEW LEVEL

It's fair to say the Pools today are taking their holiday decor to a whole new level.

Their Christmas Park features a seemingly endless grouping of scenes and subjects, including cats, dogs, pop stars, Texas, dinosaurs, toys, children's literature, religious, patriotic and holidays to name a few.

"We have 35 acres under lights," Pool said. "We started out with seven stereos that we put with the scenes … we have 66 stereos playing now."

Along with a dazzling choreographed light display, their light park features a variety of scheduled attractions: photo opportunities with Santa, live entertainment and Christmas karaoke. 

There's also a full service concession area, featuring comfort food to chase away the chill: hot dogs, BBQ, pizza, Frito pies and hot chocolate.

"Many nights the parking lot is totally full," Mrs. Pool said. "We didn't think it would grow this much."

Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest, but as the holidays near and school dismisses for break, every night becomes popular.

Visitors from around the state and beyond seem to find their way to the park.

"We hear the most amazing stories," he said. "We've had people here from Japan, Germany, France and Australia."

Pool still gets emotional when he recalls the story of a hearing impaired child laughing out loud at lighted giraffes wearing neckties.

"We felt like we touch people's lives," he said with a grin.

ALL IN THE FAMILY

Spreading Christmas joy seems to be a primary motivator for this hard-working family, considering that sales and income taxes, electricity and labor seem to eat away most of the profits.

Rain or shine, there's always something to be done: mowing, clearing and creating, even in summer, when temperatures soar past 100.

October is mostly devoted to hanging new lights, swapping out damaged ones, and retrieving display items from storage.

Using Pool's knowledge of engineering, the couple brainstorms new attractions, working with tradesmen to fabricate the ideas into eye-catching new scenes.

The expanding labor pool includes the couple's adult children and one dozen grandchildren.

"We used to be normal and spend Christmas Eve together, and then you got to spend Christmas day playing, but not anymore," said son Clay Pool. "That's because we're here."

The park is open 6 to 10:30 p.m. daily, from early November until Jan. 3.

The Pool family spends its holiday at the park, ensuring others have a good time.

Daughter-in-law Deidre Pool said it's a joy to give back, and visitors seem to realize and appreciate the sacrifice.

"My youngest children have no memories of life without this park," she said. "It's something we do together."

One might wonder if the Pools bother to decorate their home since they are surrounded by seasonal cheer.

"Oh, yes, we decorate at home," Mrs. Pool said. "We have a 12-foot tree that stays up all year … that makes it Christmas every time the kids come home."

With so much of the year devoted to the holidays, does it ever get old?

"No," Mrs. Pool said. "After all these years, I still can't wait for the first car to show up."

IF YOU GO

Christmas Park Land of Lights is at Loop 7 and Patterson Road in Athens. The park is open from 6 to 10:30 p.m. daily through Jan. 3. The cash-only admission varies from $25 for a family vehicle to $40 for a motor home. For admission details, times and attraction schedules, call 903-675-7469 or visit www.christmasparkathens.com.

 

TWITTER: @TMT_Jacque

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Jacque Hilburn-Simmons is an award-winning journalist who has been writing professionally for 30 years. She's a former police reporter who also wrote a book about the KFC murder. She shares stories about East Texas through her Behind the Wheel column.