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A Well Lighted Christmas

By Leewanna Parker

Andrew “Red” and Cecile Chiles go all out with Christmas lights every year. At 76, Red said the effort of stringing up 28,000 lights has become harder than it used to be. Every year, these past few he wonders if he will be able to continue his 20-year tradition.

But Cecile says she would be very surprised if he doesn’t continue. “He says that every year,” she said, laughing.

Red is an engineer by training. It shows in his blueprint for stringing lights. Each strand is numbered and packaged according to his overall design when Christmas is over, making it easier to put it all back up the following year. The blueprint, penciled in on a yellow legal pad, gives him a direction for the next Christmas.

The tradition of the Chiles’ light show got its start in Sweetwater, Texas, where the couple lived for more than 40 years. For the last 10 of those Lone Star State years the couple participated in the “city of lights” ordinance that asked each household to put up lights for Christmas. Red and Cecile were all too happy to oblige. “Every house had Christmas lights,” Red said. “The town’s people decided on that and we soon became a city of lights at Christmas time.”

Red retired about 11 years ago from the Cement Lone Star Industry as assistant plant manager. When he did, the couple moved back to Demopolis where both of them grew up. Coming from a city that takes great pride in their Christmas light show, Red and Cecile had boxes and boxes of lights they continued to use once their new house on the river in Demopolis was built.

Red said he had hoped maybe his own display would encourage others in Demopolis to follow suit. “A lot of people do put out lights,” he said, “but not everybody of course.”

The reason the couple spends two weeks stringing and stretching lights is a matter of community pride. “We’re one of the families on North Main who represents Christmas on the River,” Red said. “I hire two people every year to help and it takes about two weeks.” This year’s effort may have taken a bit longer.

Red’s heart condition has slowed him down, and finding people willing to help him create the light show is getting harder. “We went through a few different (local men) this year,” he said. The couple’s power bill can also become extravagant, so Red sought advice from an Alabama Power representative. “He gave me some good information to help hold down the cost,” he said. “But it’s not really about the cost. I love this city and the people here, and I do it for them.”

Now, the couple will burn their Christmas lights only during certain hours, not until midnight, as they used to. And when it rains, the couple doesn’t take the risk of an electrical shock. “We don’t go off and leave them on,” Cecile said.

The house on Main was designed to accommodate the Christmas lights. Red made sure to incorporate the needed electrical outlets on the outside of the house so that his 28,000 strands of lights won’t trip his breaker. He even has timers for his display, but they weren’t working to please him. So, the couple spends about five minutes plugging and unplugging electrical cords to start the show or to end it.

The light extravaganza overlooking the Tombigbee and the Yacht Basin is worth the effort to this couple and to the townspeople.

“People call me to make sure our lights will be on when they want to come see them,” Red said. “People just stop by and thank us. The best compliment I ever had was when a boy — he must have been about 13 — stopped by one day while I was working on the lights to thank me for working so hard for the enjoyment of everybody.”

While most people in Demopolis find pleasure in what this couple contributes to the community, there are a few Grinches about. Red said a couple of years ago, someone wantonly destroyed some of his lighted arrangements. “It was just so sad, I wanted to quit,” he said. He didn’t, of course.

When Christmas on the River comes around every year, the Chiles still have their party, opening their home for their church family, friends and family members. The couple’s glassed-in gallery has the perfect view for watching the nautical parade and the fireworks show on the river in comfort and warmth. “This is the best place to watch,” Red said. “And you don’t have to stand outside in the cold to see it .”

The best part is that once the Demopolis COTR show is over that first wekend in December, the Chiles’ lights are still there, weeks afterwards, reflecting off the river, for the pleasure of anyone who cares to see them.