Last year, I took minimalism to the limit when it came to Christmas decorations. Our furniture and possessions were crammed into a 576-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in south Florida, so the best I could do was an 18-inch felt Christmas tree from Target, adorned with small red pom-poms as ornaments, perched on the ledge by the kitchen sink. This year, in Mississippi, I have borne witness to the opposite Yuletide extreme.
Members of my husband’s TV news team had urged us to check out an electric bill-busting holiday light display in the unincorporated town of Cotton Plant, about 30 miles northwest of Tupelo. What sets Christmas in Cotton Plant apart from all the other light shows you can find in your local downtown or municipal park this time of year is that it is populated by illuminated Christmas inflatables of every conceivable size, shape, and merchandising scheme of origin. In fact, it’s billed as the nation’s largest inflatable light display.
I don’t expend any energy on home decor on an average day. I’ve thrown a sliver of a bone to Christmas tradition, however, and even experimented with a real tree in the early years of our marriage, hauling it home from Home Depot and up the stairs to our second-floor apartment in New Jersey, and decorating it by myself while my husband was working odd hours at the local newspaper. I subsequently decided that the maintenance and cleanup wasn’t worth it for a household with two adults (one of whom is a self-proclaimed Grinch) and no kids. What’s more, I count myself among those who consider inflatables a blight worse than crack houses.
But when you’re only slightly more than a half an hour’s drive from the nation’s largest inflatable light display, it seems like a travesty not to take a peek. For the past several years, this extravaganza has been a labor of love for Steven and Christy Paul. Some 500 inflatables are arranged in themed sections on the family’s 13-acre property for the general public to gawk at. This clip from TLC’s show “My Crazy Obsession” gives more details on the backstory and logistics of this decidedly nonprofit enterprise, which the family says is its gift to the community (not to mention folks who travel from up to 100 miles away to see it).
The advertised hours are 6 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and we are advised to arrive at least a half an hour early. On a Saturday night, we take our place in a line of cars along the shoulder, waiting to turn off a two-lane state highway into the gravel driveway. We’re directed to one of two parking areas by a series of people brandishing green traffic control glow sticks. There is no admission fee, but donations are encouraged, so I hand over $3 that’s all I have left in my wallet to my husband, who passes it on to one of the traffic control people carrying a donation bucket.
Once parked, we make our way to the “walk-through” portion of the display. You can settle for a drive-by experience, but we must take in the full spectacle. It is a visual and auditory overload. Christmas lights festoon the property, defining the walking paths, and are intermittently arranged as overhead canopies as well. “High voltage” signs are placed at intervals as a warning not to mess around with the miles of electrical cable.
One projection screen plays the TLC clip in an endless loop, and music or other sounds (i.e. dialogue from the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”) are piped in based on the theme of the section you’re viewing. There are limitless opportunities for picture taking, not only alongside the inflatables themselves, but also at various stations featuring large plywood boards painted with holiday backdrops, with holes cut out for visitors to stick their faces through. You can also have your picture taken with the Grinch and visit Santa in his house (although a picture with him will cost $3 to offset the cost of maintaining the house “and other Santa expenses”).
As far as taking in the main attractions is concerned, this is a story best told in pictures. Here are some of the themes you encounter:
There are myriad standard-issue poses of the jolly old elf, but you’ll find some interesting variations, too. There’s Santa the handyman, shilling for Craftsman tools:
Santa playing “whack a penguin” (this is one of a dozen or so motorized inflatables). I am not sure how People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would feel about this:
Biker Santa, who is a little rough around the edges for my taste:
And Santa the hippie peacenik:
For the most part, the reindeer are supporting characters in these inflatable tableaux, but I spied one homage to that instant classic novelty hit from the 1980s, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”:
It goes without saying that at least one Mickey Mouse inflatable is de rigeur, as well as a shout-out to “Frozen”:
Darth Vader seems less menacing when his light saber is a candy cane:
These can be pretty ho-hum, but because this is Mississippi, you can’t avoid a nod to redneck culture:
The Elf on the Shelf
Because you have to keep up with the latest trends in holiday merchandising mythology:
No explanation needed here.
“The reason for the season”
The Christian-themed inflatables include a 15-foot Jesus:
God Bless the U.S.A.
This patriotic section includes Santa riding an elephant, which is entirely in keeping with Mississippi’s political geography:
And other curiosities …
This talking mounted deer head, cleverly named Buck, tells jokes that may have been lifted from an issue of my 8-year-old niece’s Highlights magazine. “Where do reindeer go for lunch? Deery Queen!”
One thing to be careful of is that the layout isn’t linear — many of the paths circle back on themselves. You can find yourself experiencing the same kind of disorientation you get while trying to navigate a corn maze. But if you are not a parent who needs to stop constantly to snap photos of your little one, whom you have likely dressed in their pajamas so you can deposit them into bed upon your return home, you can easily knock it out in an hour.
An hour of inflatable Christmas spirit was about all we could stand, given the ever-growing sea of humanity. As we headed back down the highway, it looked like the line of cars waiting to make the turn was now at least a mile long. It was a lot of stimuli to process; this excursion stood as yet another reminder that the holidays are often a study in excess. I can’t say it changed my attitude about the aesthetics of inflatables, but its popularity is certainly a testament to the joy it spreads. The Paul family could probably make a killing if they charged by the carload, and yet they don’t. Oddly enough, Christmas in Cotton Plant strikes me as one of the least commercialized holiday attractions you can find.