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Mr. Christmas says this season will be last for Wonderland

Posted: Tuesday, December 31, 2002

KILLINGLY, Conn. -- For 35 years, Mervin Whipple has personally greeted -- and counted -- some 1.4 million visitors from all over the country to his renowned annual Christmas Wonderland -- a free light display numbering 120,000 bulbs and including moving figures.

But the man known as Mr. Christmas may finally be pulling the plug on the tradition. Whipple said that when he turns off the lights at 9 p.m. Wednesday, he won't be turning them back on.

It's not just his age, though he is 74. And it's not just the cost, though the season's bill ran $18,000 last year -- $4,000 for the electric bill alone.

No, Christmas Wonderland is closing because there's just not enough Christmas spirit.

''The whole attitude of people has changed in 35 years,'' Whipple said. ''The spirit of giving isn't nowhere near as much as the spirit of receiving.''

Christmas Wonderland, in the Ballouville section of this eastern Connecticut town, began in 1967 with a nativity scene and 225 lights. It's grown each year, but Whipple says he's never lost sight of his original focus.

 

Mervin R. Whipple greets one of thousands that will visit his Christmas Wonderland this holiday season in Ballouville, Conn., Monday, Dec. 23, 2002. For 35 years, the twinkle of Mervin Whipple's Christmas lights have been matched only by the twinkle in his eye. But the man known as Mr. Christmas, may finally be pulling the plug on the tradition.

AP Photo/John Spivey

''It's giving and doing for somebody else; that's just exactly how I feel,'' he said.

He's gone from dozens of volunteers in years past to just four this year. That's not enough, Whipple says, as the display takes months to set up even with 20 people working.

The display includes two life-size toy soldiers standing guard in the driveway, as well as Snow White and the seven dwarves. Several dozen glass-fronted wooden crates, 10 feet high, house more animated scenes.

There's a horse and carriage bearing figures in Victorian costumes, and a family of mice asleep in bed with a Christmas tree sparkling in the corner. A trio of white-robed angels beam benevolently, Mrs. Claus knits a cap for Santa, and all of the reindeer are stabled near a life-size figure of Uncle Sam.

And although Whipple has always operated his Wonderland with the notion that he will never charge people to get in, the donation box stowed discreetly in the corner of the showroom has been embarrassingly empty.

Last year, the first two days' donations brought in less than half a cent per person.

Those who grew up on regular visits to Christmas Wonderland say Whipple threatens to close down every year, but agree it would be a big loss when he finally does.

''It's a tradition,'' said 21-year-old Ryan Doyle, of Killingly. ''All the little kids, when they grow up, they'll be like 'That was so nice.'''



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