Ed Grisamore

Gris: Dodge County Christmas light display possibly biggest in Georgia

YONKER --

It gets dark early when the December days get shorter and the sun slips behind the pine trees across Gum Swamp Creek to the west toward Roddy.

Nightfall, though, officially begins when the Tripp family flips the light switch and their yard comes alive with every color on the Christmas kaleidoscope.

It is usually around 6 p.m. Or sometimes earlier if the cars and trucks start parking along the shoulders of Macedonia Church Road before supper and folks begin strolling through the yard.

What began as a single strand of lights on the front porch almost 40 years ago has now become what is believed to be the largest private residential Christmas light display in Georgia.

They climb like kudzu vines along the house and over the roof. They hang from trees, fences and bushes across the two-acre yard.

Marie Tripp tells people to be careful not to stand still or her husband, Joe, might string a light on them.

The Tripps have almost 500,000 lights, “give or take a blown bulb or two,’’ according to Marie. They actually tried counting them a few years ago, using a calculator for each new string.

Unfortunately, after they reached 200,000 and hadn’t made it halfway around the yard, the totals accidentally disappeared. (Apparently, the “C” button on the calculator means “Clear,’’ not “Christmas.’’)

The ABC television series “The Great Christmas Light Fight” has approached the Tripps about being featured each of the past two years, but they respectfully declined.

Besides, there already is enough commotion in Yonker every holiday season. Last year, a record 14,000 people came to the “Tripp Family Christmas Lights” (www.trippchristmas.com) And that’s just those who signed the guest books.

From the weekend after Thanksgiving until three days after Christmas, this tiny community becomes “Watt-kinsville.” There are evenings when there is so much traffic, the headlights and tail lights stretch to Highway 257, like a scene right out of “Field of Dreams.’’

“If more than 10 cars pass by our house on a given day, it’s either a funeral or they’re lost,’’ Marie said. “But last year we had so many people come to see the lights it was August before the grass grew back on the pathway in our yard.’’

If you refer to this place as Yonkers, like the city in New York, the locals will politely correct you. It’s “Yonker,’’ with no “s” at the end, despite what all the maps say. The population isn’t enough to be plural, anyway.

Joe affectionately calls his hometown “the middle of nowhere.’’ The Tripps live in Dodge County, have a Cochran address and their telephone exchange is in Rentz, which is in Laurens County.

A GPS won’t guide you here with great efficiency, so it’s best to simply look for the lights.

In a big city, the family’s light display might get lost in all the light pollution. But out here in the countryside, you can see them blinking from way over yonder.

There has never been a charge to see the display, although donations are appreciated. The Tripps don’t give Christmas presents to family members. This is their gift to each other and to a world that can never have too many Christmas lights.

There are three questions they’re always asked. Where do they get all their decorations? Where do they keep them? And how much is their electric bill?

The decorations arrive from everywhere and out of nowhere -- auctions, yard sales, attics, garages and clearance markdowns. It takes five storage sheds to contain them in the backyard.

Marie doesn’t respond to curiosity about the light bill. But Joe hints there are “four digits’’ on the bottom line.

“We just tell them every light out there is a blessing we have received,’’ he said.

‘GO HOME AND SEE THE LIGHTS’

The Tripps have five children -- Monica Spell, Mendi Brooks, Amanda Ramos, Joey Tripp and Jami Tripp. Christmas has always been at the center of their lives. Joe’s parents -- the late Joe and Evelyn Tripp -- were married on Christmas Eve in 1944. And Joe and Marie were married on Christmas Eve in 1974.

As newlyweds, Joe and Marie lived at Sheltering Pines trailer park off Houston Road in Macon. When they moved to Yonker and into the house Joe grew up in, they put up a Christmas tree and hung lights across the awning on the porch.

“Why are you doing that?” some of the kinfolk asked. “Nobody out here is going to see them but the deer.’’

Their son, Joey, was born in 1984. When he was 10, he was diagnosed with stage 4 bone cancer (osteosarcoma). Doctors didn’t offer the family much hope until he underwent a femur transplant. He was only the sixth person in Georgia to have the experimental surgery.

In December 1995, Joey was a patient at Egleston Children’s Hospital in Atlanta. The nurses asked him what he wanted for Christmas.

“I want to go home and see the lights,’’ he said.

On Christmas Eve, Marie drove him in the family’s Ford Aerostar, fighting back tears as she passed every mile marker along the interstate.

Joe, Monica and Mendi went over the top with their decorating. They stretched 2,000 lights from the pecan tree across the front yard. They were waiting in the driveway when Joey and Marie pulled up.

“I think that was my favorite Christmas,’’ Marie said.

Joey has endured 40 surgeries in his lifetime, including a 21-hour surgery on his spine when he was 13 years old. He went through nine years of chemotherapy. In 2005, doctors reported no signs of the cancer.

One year ago this week, Joey graduated from the University of Georgia with a business degree and 3.98 GPA. He is the “public relations and community engagement director” for the Tripp Family Christmas Lights.

He will always be the inspiration behind it.

The Tripps are calling this their 30th year of sharing the lights. It has grown by leaps and bulbs. School buses and church vans come from all directions. There have been entries in the guest books from as far away as Australia, South Africa and Sweden. People who saw the lights as children are now bringing their own children.

At least six couples have gotten engaged in the yard, on the porch or at the end of the driveway. All without mistletoe, too.

Joe always dresses as Santa Claus. A few years ago, a young woman sat on his knee. Her boyfriend, who was in the military, snuck into town and surprised her by dropping to his knee and proposing in front of Santa.

A neighbor once played a joke on Marie and sent a state trooper to knock on her door. He was wearing sunglasses.

“Ma’am, do you have a permit for these lights?” he asked.

When she told him she did not, he said a complaint had been filed. She couldn’t believe it. She demanded to know who had complained.

“Robins Air Force Base,’’ the trooper said, trying not to crack a smile. “Their planes are having trouble figuring out where to land and want to know if you can tone it down a little.’’

It takes Joe 11 weeks to set up the display. He starts working on it the last week of September. Yes, he must get into the Christmas spirit early.

The Tripps have more Christmas cords than Christmas cards. They are plugged into a pair of 200-amp boxes and five lines leading from the house. There are so many wires buried in the ground Joe is afraid to dig holes in the yard. “I might light up myself,’’ he said, laughing.

Joe came up with the idea for stretching the lights across the roof from watching Chevy Chase in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.’’

He and Joey once flew over the house in a private plane to see lights. It was breathtaking from above.

One night last week, a helicopter kept circling overhead. The Tripps are still waiting for their first drone sighting.

Last year, rumors began circulating it might be the final year. Especially after Joe was hospitalized around Thanksgiving. Marie had health problems earlier this year and had to retire.

But those rumors are not true, Marie said. They are hopeful the younger family members will take over the reins one day and keep the tradition going.

The glow must go on.

Contact Gris at 744-4275 or egrisamore@macon.com.

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