Note: This story first appeared in the Giving issue of Grayson Magazine.
What shines brightly over the shoulder of a former U.S. president and has garnered more than $1,122,593 in donations?
If you guessed Grayson County Holiday Lights, you were right.
The display is in its 19th year and so far has been viewed by at an estimated 550,000 people.
The event that has become a solid Christmas tradition for many people in Grayson County started as the yuletide dream of retired Grayson County Judge Horace Groff.
“I got the idea from a light display in an Austin City park, and I shared the vision with Phil McKenzie at the Mayor Foundation. He liked the idea and contacted the Smith Foundation and they bought in to the project, each contributing $75,000,” Groff said of the beginning of the project.
Loy Park was a natural choice for the location because it was already owned by the county, was centrally located between the county’s biggest cities and had easy access from U.S. 75.
Jeff Schneider, who spearheaded the display for the county for 18 years for the county, said he estimates that more than 3,000 people have served as volunteers accepting donations at the end of the display.
“I’ve always been surprised that we usually have more wanting to volunteer than we can use! I don’t know of any other situation like this,” Schneider said in an interview before he retired.
That display is generally opened from the night after Thanksgiving through Christmas and sometimes into New Year’s Eve, though donations and attendance do drop off sharply after Christmas Eve. The lights come on at 5:30 p.m. and stay lit until 10 p.m.
Inclement weather has dimmed the lights for nine nights in those 18 years, with five of those nights happening in 2013. Freezing temperatures are not comfortable for the volunteers who stand outside taking up donations, but they do not close the drive through. Freezing temperatures combined with precipitation, however, make getting to and from the display dangerous for both the general public and the volunteers and so results in closing of the display.
Since the route for the display has filled almost all of the available space at Loy Park, the committee in charge of the event have tried to keep things fresh by changing out older displays for new ones each year. This year the new displays feature elves up to their tricks.
In the past the county could sell some of those older displays back to the distributor to get a good price on new ones. That option is no longer available, and the committee had planned a sale of some of the older displays but that was called off when the team behind Frontier Village decided it wanted some displays to intersperse throughout the park.
Frontier Village hosts a reception each year for the first night of Holiday Lights and offers free goodies and hot chocolate to those who come out to celebrate the beginning of another season. The celebration also includes a sleigh ride through the lighted displays that is pulled by a tractor manned by one of the county’s four commissioners. That is just another way that the county supports the effort without actually paying for it.
County commissioners have put in a lot of work on the project over the years by doing everything from working on the roadways to providing labor to put up or take down displays.
One county employee is on duty each night to keep the displays running and to provide support to the volunteers who work the donations booth. The staff each night also includes an off-duty Denison police officer who helps to guide traffic and provide extra support for the volunteers.