The coronavirus can’t hamper the holiday spirit
Ronnie Cain had to pull the plug on his legendary Christmas light display at his home in Westover this season due to the pandemic.
For the literally thousands of people who have thrilled to his work in a nearly 40-year run, that’s sad news.
Except for one thing.
There’s still a glow there.
And that calls for a different kind of telling.
Because the best Christmas stories aren’t sad, and they aren’t about presents under the tree or lights on the front of the house, either.
The best Christmas stories are about people.
People who unwrap their hearts, and their sense of fun and just plain joy, to ensure the holidays live up to the job description.
This one is about Cain and his neighbor, Carol McGraw.
“I have so many good neighbors,” said Cain, who was recently gifted his 80th birthday. “I’m surrounded by a lot of good people. I can tell you that.”
McGraw was regarding a big present 18 years ago: The house she had just bought.
That’s how she made Cain’s acquaintance.
The new homeowner hadn’t yanked the packing tape from all the boxes yet when he ambled across her yard to hail a hello.
And to ask a favor.
He explained to her that he did this “little Christmas thing every year” that would require — if she didn’t mind, of course — the use of her yard for a few days in December.
His other neighbors did the same every season, he said. The people who last occupied the house she was moving into were participants also, he said.
“The kids really like it,” he said.
How could a newcomer say no to that?
So, he runs a few strands of lights, she thought.
Seemed appropriate, she mused, since the guy smacked of Yuletide, even in the summer.
That was her first impression: Jolly, crinkly laugh lines, to go with a somewhat roundish stature.
A clean-shaven Santa shrunk in a dryer and plunked down one house over from hers.
Making spirits bright
That “little Christmas thing,” she would soon find out, was more akin to Disney World — with the high beams on.
She got her first inkling that first autumn.
“It was around September or October, and I look out and there’s Ronnie,” McGraw remembered.
“I thought, ‘That’s nice. He must decorate for Halloween, too.’ Then I looked again, and saw it was Christmas stuff. I said, ‘Oh. He really is serious.’ ”
Serious as a smoking transformer. Serious as a melted power line. With all the good intentions in the world, Cain has been responsible for both, and more than once.
“The power company never gets mad,” chuckled Cain, who is versed in the art of amperage.
He retired from the coal mines, where he worked as an electrician.
When Cain hit the switch for McGraw’s first Christmas on Maple Avenue, she was a little girl, all over again.
“I said, ‘Will you look at that?’”
There was a lot to regard: Lighted paths, galore.
Lighted displays were everywhere, including her new front yard, which was really an old canvas for Cain’s annual artwork.
Look over here, and there’s fanciful Santa, whooping it up on water skis.
Look over there, and there’s another Santa, cruising in a Winnebago.
Cain, his neighbor spied, even stole a grinning Grinch, who was watching over a holiday-bedecked mailbox for letters to the North Pole.
Of course, Rudolph was right in the middle of the happy tinsel-tumult, with his red nose glowing brighter than a traffic light at the Triangle.
It was a Christmas symphony with a choir of 200,000 light bulbs.
And the best part, McGraw said, were the little kids, with moms and dads, and grandmas and granddads.
“They just kept pouring in,” she said, “The line never stopped.”
That’s what Cain gets, he said, for trying to recreate the rush of that pre-display Christmas of 1981, when he donned a Santa suit, grabbed a lawn chair, and decided to wave at passing cars on nearby Fairmont Road.
“I’d put on the suit and go out into the yard,” he told The Dominion Post a couple of years back.
“Next thing I know, this church van stopped, and nine little kids bailed out. Liked to knock me over.”
Actually, they did knock him over, emotionally.
“Just seeing the looks on their faces,” he said. “I knew I had to keep doing this.”
You’re a mean one, Mr. COVID
Cain normally starts wiring up the display around July. That’s how long it takes.
From the first week of December to right before Christmas Eve, Cain — with the help of 70 people, including friends, neighbors and family — positively illuminates his little quadrant of Westover.
But not this year. The coronavirus came in like Scrooge’s cousin.
“I didn’t feel comfortable,” he said.
“It’s just not safe. The way people pack in for this, there’s no way you could manage six feet apart. And I don’t want to scare any little ones with Santa in a mask.”
Last Christmas, Cain made note of 2,215 youngsters passing through.
That’s not even the course record, he said.
McGraw, like most who know Cain, was transformed by the Christmas display and found herself being part of it as well.
She’s volunteered over the years, and even assisted a certain North Pole resident with replies to those letters that ended up in that mailbox.
It set her to thinking.
Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas (spoiler alert, aside)
Wouldn’t it be nice, McGraw wondered if all those people who toured the display over the years sent a card to Cain and his wife, Sharon?
You know, she said: To revolve the holiday table, and wish them a merry Christmas, as they have to so many.
Cain, like Frosty, vows to be back someday — as in next year.
“We’re going do our best,” he said.
But there’s still this year, McGraw said.
“And my yard is awfully dark these days,” the neighbor continued.
“I’d never met anyone like Ronnie. I don’t think he’s ever had a negative thought. I’ve never heard him say anything negative. To me, Ronnie is Christmas.”
Last month, she put out a call on social media for the Christmas cards while giving a brief history of how Cain’s Christmas display first lit up all those December nights.
Cards may be sent to Ronnie and Sharon Cain, in care of Carol McGraw, 105 Maple Ave., Westover, WV 26501.
Some cards have already started coming in, McGraw said.
And her neighbor, she said, is getting excited about reading them, just like a kid on Christmas.
The tributes on social media, McGraw said, were pretty much instantaneous.
One woman’s post could have carried a spoiler alert label to this Christmas story.
That’s because the woman figured it out, McGraw said.
Her post: “I’d always wondered about their neighbors. I’d often assumed y’all were family and in on the whole thing.”