If Santa needed an off-season getaway, he might like to bunk with Robert and Lou Ann Arnett.

The Tyler couple enjoys going all out for the holiday, decking their halls with an assortment of collected décor and new finds, gifted from friends.

Trains are a recurring theme, amassed as a tribute to Arnett's 40-plus years as a conductor, mostly with Cotton Belt Rail Line then with Union Pacific.

He's retired now, but the couple's shared passion for the beloved transportation mode continues to burn bright in their hearts and choice of holiday house warming.

Decorating starts in early October and chugs along until just before turkey day.

"We may not do this much next year, we're not sure," Mrs. Arnett, a retired accounting professional, said with a grin. "This year, we just have five big trees and a lot of little ones."

It's unclear exactly how many trains are stationed at the couple's house.

An exact count is not particularly important; it's the thought behind them.

About 75 percent of the donations are gifts from children, grandchildren, friends and other loved ones, and each seems to have a story.

Much of everything else is second hand hauls from garage sales, The Salvation Army, Goodwill and other thrifty stops.

In the couple's living room, there's an entire cabinet devoted to trains, as well as on Christmas trees and in other décor, such as wall hangings, knickknacks and rail station artifacts.

Doorways are festooned with garland adorned in sparkly lights, ornaments and holiday ribbons.

"I usually have it all done before Thanksgiving," Mrs. Arnett said, who claims to mix decorating with "piddling."

Eventually, every room and hallway in the couple's home is adorned for the holidays, even restrooms and outdoor patio.

Half a dozen trees reside in the kitchen alone, each one different with its own theme.

She laughs at all the glitz and calls it "gaudy."

Her good-natured husband just shrugs and retrieves the storage totes when asked.

"She's never really done," Arnett said jokingly. "I just help."


The couple married in 1961 and started building their collections shortly after.

Today, their grown children assist in the efforts, Mrs. Arnett said, recalling the surprising resurrection of a fluffy white tree her daughter found in a secondhand store.

The tree was coated in a thick layer of dust and muck, but a little power washing later, it's as good as new and standing proudly in the couple's bedroom.

Arnett contributes to his wife's decorating hobby, perhaps unintentionally.

One of his prized possessions is an antique glass brick salvaged from an old roundhouse, a circular structure for parking, servicing and redirecting trains.

"They tore it down," he said, describing the sad razing of the old railway structure. "On the windows were these clear bricks … I got one."

It sits proudly on a living room table, magically transformed into shimmery Christmas present with twinkle lights on the inside and a festive bow outside.

One might wonder what fuels all this creative energy every holiday season.

Both grew up in loving, modest homes where family took center stage over material possessions.

A cedar harvested from the field served as the Christmas tree; stockings held fresh fruit and nuts.

The simplicity made Christmas memorable, they said, and many of their vintage ornaments seem to reflect those simpler times.

"Growing up, we were very modest, but my mother did her best," Mrs. Arnett said. "We always had a Christmas tree … and we usually had a doll under the tree."

With so many memories attached to the Arnett's holiday house, one might suspect there is a twinge of sadness when it comes time for the dreaded chore of the season: taking it all down.

"Not at all," Mrs. Arnett said.

"It comes down a lot easier than it goes up," her husband said. "And a lot faster."


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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.