Posted on 15 December 2014.
Like Santa’s elves, starting right after Halloween Bainbridge Islanders Chuck and Dorothy Callaham get to work hanging, stringing, testing, retesting, inflating, and staking their extraordinary Christmas display, lighting up all of our lives with one of the Island’s most spectacular holiday lights shows and certainly its most visible one
Anyone who has driven the north end of Highway 305 between Thanksgiving and New Year’s during the last 25 years or so has witnessed this Island wonder, which is nothing short of jaw-dropping.
When I saw the For Sale sign in front of their compound of houses a few months ago, I got worried. Dorothy Callaham told me I wasn’t the only one. Lately, when she takes her neighborhood constitutional, people ask her gravely if she is selling and thereby ending the Callaham Christmas tradition.
Dorothy Callaham assured me, as she does her frequent concerned inquirers, that the house for sale is not hers but the one behind her, which used to be owned by her parents but is no longer in the family. So, for those of you worried that your kids won’t get to see the Highway 305 lights, rest assured. The Callahams aren’t going anywhere, and they’re as committed as ever to keeping their holiday tradition alive.
Chuck’s light workshop.
It all clicked for me when Dorothy and Chuck explained two things: Chuck is a retired electrician, and Dorothy is a hardcore Disney fan. When I asked how they got started with their show of lights, Dorothy explained that her family began by hanging lights for her mother when she lived in the house behind theirs. Gradually, year by year, Dorothy and Chuck, along with Dorothy’s sister in the house next door, expanded their Christmas display, adding decorations piece by piece, light by light.
Dorothy Callaham has lived on the Highway 305 property for 68 years, since she was 4, and Chuck has been on the Island for 75 years, since he was 3. Although there was a difference of opinion between Chuck and Dorothy about when they started their lights display, the settled consensus was the mid 1980s. The couple acknowledged, with good-natured annoyance that is only earned between two people over decades, that they “argue” during their decorating. Possibly, in a charming way, hints of this dynamic were evident during our interview. I, for one, cannot imagine a serene 50 hours of outdoor decorating in all manner of Northwest weather, so no judgment was passed.
As the resident electrician, Chuck is the bulb checker. By this I mean he checks every single one, attempting to salvage anything he can. Dorothy is the one who tracks, year by year through photo records, the placement of decorations on their property. And the two of them “confer,” over time, about what features to move around for variety. Dorothy says they also buy new decorations each year, usually after the holiday season when they are on sale.
The Callahams told me that there are six circuits and six timers, which seemed modest considering the complexity of their production. Each year they put up and take down their entire holiday display, storing it in about 30 well-organized plastic bins in the off season.
Although the two are getting on in years, they both looked fitter than fiddles to me. They say they try to wait for good-weather days to do their decorating but get out in any weather if need be to meet their deadline of Thanksgiving to launch their first night of holiday lighting.
When I asked the $20,000 question—How much is their December electricity bill?—the Callahams said it was about three times the normal amount. Again, I was surprised by how much bang for their buck we get in terms of inestimable seasonal enjoyment. To commuters who complain that the display is distracting, I say, “Humbug!” The Callahams report that for every complaint, there are many more people who thank them for brightening up their day, and good cheer is what keeps them motivated year after year.
The North Highway 305 lights display, on the east side of the road, runs from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. The Callahams turn on their lights each evening approximately from 4-10 p.m. They keep their lights on all night on Christmas to help Santa find his way.
[Updated from the archives; first published November 12, 2011.]
Photos by Julie Hall.