For the past 19 years, from the first Friday after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Eve, one of Grayson County’s parks is filled with the light of the holiday season. This year, that tradition continues and it is estimated that more than 550,000 people have witnessed the Grayson County Holiday Lights.
For the first time since its inaugural run, the display is under the direction of a new leader. When Grayson County Purchasing Agent Jeff Schneider retired in 2019 after 25 years with the county, some on the committee responsible for the lights wondered if the county could ever find anyone with the heart for the event that Schneider had displayed through the years — a heart that earned him the title of the county’s “Head Elf” in the local media. After a great deal of searching and some negotiations, the county selected Jodi Platt as the new purchasing agent and she became “Elf Service Coordinator” for the Holiday Lights. Platt said she is relieved to finally have the display open for the season and noted that things are going well.
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. This year, the day after Thanksgiving, Platt opened the 2019 run of the lights with a small ceremony that honored Groff, Schneider and Holiday Lights supporter and committee member, Ray Bledsoe. In opening the display, Groff thanked those who have provided donations, one car-load at a time, that have kept the power on.
“Grayson County is fortunate to have people like you who support these activities,” Groff said. “It always warms my heart to see how generous people are when they come through the display once, twice, or three times (a season).”
In a previous interview, Groff talked about the idea that grew to be the Grayson County Holiday Lights.
“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,” Groff said of the beginning of the project. He liked the idea and contacted the Smith Foundation, who bought in to the project and each contributed $75,000.
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. Highway 75. Schneider estimated 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,” Schneider said in an interview before he retired. “I don’t know of any other situation like this.”
That display is generally open 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 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 volunteers, and so results in closing 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. In the past, the county could sell some of those older displays back to the distributor to get a better price on new ones. That option is no longer available, and the committee had planned a sale of some of the older displays, which was later called off when the team behind Frontier Village decided it wanted some of those displays interspersed throughout the park.
As it has for many years, Frontier Village hosted the reception, during which Platt honored Groff, Bledsoe and Schneider for their work with the display. In addition to a warm and dry place to hold the ceremony, the Village provided free goodies and hot chocolate to those who came to celebrate the beginning of another season. The celebration also included a sleigh ride through the lighted displays pulled by a tractor manned by one of the county’s four commissioners. That is just another way the county supports the effort without actually paying for it.
Grayson County commissioners have helped the project along through the years by doing everything from working on the roadways to providing labor to put up or take down displays, and are committed to continuing that work in the future.
In addition to the crew of volunteers who take up donations each night of the run, the event staff includes one county employee whose job it is to keep the displays running and an off-duty Denison police officer who helps guide traffic and provide extra support for the volunteers.
This year’s run started the day after Thanksgiving and will continue through New Year’s Eve.