PILOT MOUNTAIN — On Thursday evening, Larry and Rachel Charpiat will continue what has become a Thanksgiving tradition for their family. But the turkey and fixings will have to wait one day as all attention will be focused on welcoming guests to the opening of their “Pilot Mountain Christmas.”
Thanksgivng evening again will mark the much anticipated lighting of the Charpiats’ expansive display of holiday lights, music and animation. This year’s display will again be bigger than past years, featuring the addition of some 10 new areas along with upgrades and other seemingly constant changes. While unable to give an exact number, the couple estimate that well over 300,000 and probably close to 500,000 lights are now being used.
Among the new features will be additions purchased from individuals which may seem familiar, after serving for years in the Tanglewood Park annual exhibit. This will include a major arch with light animation now positioned near the display’s entrance.
Other additions will include an expanded “carnival” area and new “pond” scenes. And displays in an adjacent field will include a new 22-feet tall tree of lights.
“Thanksgiving is always a big night for us,” Rachel Charpiat said. “We’re excited and ready for this year. We’ve been blessed with some pretty weather to prepare. Family members will come in to help us with the grand opening and we’ll wait and have our Thanksgiving meal on Friday.”
This marks the 45th year that Larry Charpiat has hosted a Christmas lights display, beginning as a 19-year-old at his parents’ home in Hollywood, Fla. Throughout the years, he has continued to decorate and add to his collection of lights and figures.
In 1999, he and Pilot Mountain native Rachel Beck, then also living in Florida, traveled to Hawaii where they were married. And she was gradually drawn into his enthusiasm for the lights and the response they created in others until she reached the point of sharing his unbridled enthusiasm for the annual display.
She now eagerly joins her husband in spending countless hours working on displays and adding delicate details. While many visitors may not notice some of the finer points of her work, pieces become an intimate expression of her own passion for the season.
This will be the couple’s seventh year of hosting a display in Pilot Mountain after moving here in late 2004. The move was a return to home for Rachel Charpiat who grew up in the area as one of nine children of Emmett and Mary Beck. They brought along their extensive collection of Christmas lights and characters and by Thanksgiving Day 2005, their interpretation of a Pilot Mountain Christmas was in place.
That collection has continued to grow as the couple has incorporated portions of the five acres of woods, outbuildings, fields and lawn surrounding their home on N.C. 268 East, two miles from its junction with Old Highway 52 Bypass. The couple has continued to add to the lights and colors with new items found and old favorites long stored away and almost forgotten until now an estimated 80 percent of the land has some decorations.
“This time,” Rachel Charpiat noted, “we’ve been adding, repairing and redoing all year. We’ve put as much or more into this year as we ever have and we’re really pleased with the results. I still get excited just thinking about it.”
According to the couple, a major part of this year’s effort has gone toward continuing to make the display free and accessible to all who wish to visit. Last year saw a major increase in visitors to the walk-through exhibit, with the number of those signing the Charpiats’ guest book doubling from 6,000 to 12,000. And, Larry Charpiat noted, numerous others toured the display without signing.
The Charpiats have addressed potential parking congestion by adding some 354 tons of gravel to a cleared and lighted parking area, adding 50 spaces and almost tripling the number of cars that can be accommodated.
The couple also has worked to switch lighting to the more efficient LED bulbs, providing electrical savings that will help them be able to continue offering the display without charge as well as providing free hot chocolate. There is no admission fee but donations are accepted. Rachel Charpiat estimates last year’s electrical cost for the display at about $2,000.
“As long as we’re getting enough to pay our light bill,” she noted, “we’re going to keep doing this for free and we’ll keep giving away hot chocolate. This is something that a family can still afford to do together.”
And if early interest is an indication, this year should again be a big one in terms of visitors. The couple already is getting lots of eager interest through their Pilot Mountain Christmas Facebook page and through their www.pilotmountainchristmas.com Web site.
“And people are already stopping by to ask when the lights will be coming on,” Rachel Charpiat added. “They act like they’re in awe when they see it. They can’t believe we’re doing this.”
It is that personal interaction that drives Larry Charpiat to continue to develop the walk-through exhibit.
“I love that,” he explained, “to see the faces and the effect this has on the children and the adults. They want to take their time and look at everything as they walk through it and I enjoy seeing their reactions. That’s a lot of it for us.”
“This is our way of celebrating Jesus’ birthday,” Rachel Charpiat added. “So many people forget what this season is really all about but it’s our favorite time of the year.”
The Charpiats’ Pilot Mountain Christmas display, located two miles east of Old U.S. 52 Bypass on N.C. 268 East, will be open from Thanksgiving evening through Jan. 1. Hours are from 6 to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 to 11 p.m. on weekends.
Scheduled special events include visits from Santa each Friday and Saturday evening excluding, of course, Christmas Eve. The Brims Grove Baptist Church youth choir will be on hand Dec. 4 beginning at 6:15 p.m. and the church’s younger youth will perform on Dec. 7.
And on Dec. 11, Judy Pancoast, a children’s songwriter, performer and recording artist hailing from New Hampshire, will perform. Financial and food donations from the evening will benefit the Pilot Mountain Outreach Center, to be used in helping area residents with need.
“Now,” Rachel Charpiat explained, “with most everything ready, we can breathe and enjoy what we’ve done. We love to be outside and talk to the visitors. They’re excited and so are we.”