Snowmen, elves, polar bears and penguins peek through the trees of Canaan, Maine, lit by countless strings of lights. The Christmas wonderland, located at 1955 Hill Road, consists of more than 70 blow-up characters, among other holiday-themed displays, including a reindeer merry-go-round, nativity scene and 131 light-up candy canes.
“Come in and walk around,” a sign reads by the road.
Elmer Holmes, shop foreman at Central Maine Chrysler, built the display to be seen from the road, as well as a loop trail that he snowblowed through the woods in front of his home. It’s there for all to enjoy, whether they just happen to be passing by or arrive on purpose, as many of the neighborhood families do.
It’s free. In fact, he doesn’t accept donations. But he does enjoy letters, much like Santa Claus. Visitors can leave feedback in a mailbox at the end of his driveway.
“I do it for the kids,” Elmer Holmes said on the evening of Dec. 13, while freeing his many inflatable displays from the frozen crust of a recent snowstorm.
“It doesn’t matter if the kids are 70 or 12,” he added with a quiet laugh. “I mean, they’re still kids. I get just as many of the older people come in, and just love it as the young ones do.”
In 14 degree weather, Elmer Holmes walked through the woods, under strings of blinking lights, until he came to a lifeless pile of fabric coated in snow and ice. With gloved hands, he picked away the crust until a snowman leapt to life, air filling its giant fabric body, lights swirling inside.
“Rain like we had last night is a real challenge — it really is,” he shared. “The inflatables are made out of a parachute material, and that ice sticks to them.”
That evening, he had been out there for two hours, fixing up the display while wearing a Santa hat, listening to Christmas tunes. Meanwhile, cars whizzed by on Hill Road, a busy road that links Canaan to Clinton. Many of them slowed down, taking in the dazzling display.
It all started with an inflatable Santa bear, purchased by Elmer Holmes’s late wife, Jacqueline Holmes, in 2002.
“You can see him down there in the corner, still alive and strong,” Elmer Holmes said, pointing to the far end of the loop trail. “My new wife now — I’ve been with her 10 years, and she just loves it. I mean, I got 10 new ones last year. It just keeps growing and growing and growing.”
“I told him, ‘You’re going to have to move out to the backyard, you’re running out of room,’” his wife, Peggy Holmes, said while laughing.
Elmer Holmes often buys the decorations at after-Christmas sales, when blow-up displays are often as much as 80 percent off, and he accepts decorations from family and friends.
“They all are on the lookout for me,” he said. “They’ll call me up [and say], ‘You want this one?’ [My sister] called last year [and said], ‘Got Snoopy in the fireplace and that little [Disney] Minion.’ Those come from Presque Isle.”
But every once in a while, he’ll cave in and pay full price for a particularly nice inflatable, such as the reindeer he places right near the edge of the road and the giant inflatable dragon wearing a Santa hat, new this season.
He also combs yard sales for particularly unique pieces, such as the old reindeer merry-go-round and Christmas-themed ferris wheel he found at a yard sale this past summer.
“They were in pieces,” he said. “For the carousel, I had to restuff all the reindeer because they were flattened all out. So I have to open the seams up and stuff them with styrofoam and put them back in. And the motor was gone out of the ferris wheel, so I put another motor in it.”
He’s continually fixing things. Last year, after Christmas had passed, he fixed seven sets of lights and 75 light-up candy canes, he said.
“I’ll bring them inside and sit downstairs and you know these lights, one at a time, that’s the only way you can fix them,” he said.
He’s also noticed that squirrels will steal certain light bulbs, a problem he hasn’t been able to solve. But for the most part, he’s gotten the display down to a science.
“When I first started this, I had to run extension cords all the way from the house, then I built this shed here, and I put power to it,” Holmes said, standing beside a signpost for the North Pole and Santa’s Workshop. “So I’ve got all my timers all inside.”
The lights are usually set to come on at 4:15 p.m. and turn off at 8:30 p.m. on weekdays, and on weekends, he extends the hours, turning on the power as early at 2 p.m.
The power that it takes to keep the displays inflated and lit does a number on his electricity bill, he said, but he was reluctant to share just how much extra money it costs him each holiday season. After all, it isn’t about money.
“This brings a lot [of joy] to a lot of kids, makes them smile, you know,” Elmer Holmes said. “You can’t buy that smile.”
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