Heinrich lights up Christmas spirit
An outdoor Christmas display illuminates Fred Heinrich’s world – a world he shares with the community each year.
Nearly 1.5 acres of the property at 450476 Old Dixie Highway will be lit Friday night with hundreds of twinkling lights and several spotlights to enhance wooden figures created by Heinrich and his family. They design and begin installing the display the weekend after Halloween. They add the finishing touches just before Thanksgiving, and began to light the Callahan display Nov. 29.
“That’s when the Christmas season starts in my book,” Heinrich said.
The lawn display features vignettes with snowmen, elves, Santa and Mrs. Claus, a teddy bear, a dog, reindeer and farm animals. Heinrich adds new features and moves things around to create a new configuration each year, spending at least 200 hours completing the project.
A nativity scene shines at the center of the lawn. Lights shaped into a Christmas tree add another element of illumination nearby.
“The manger scene is the main reason for the whole season – is Jesus being born,” Heinrich said. “The rest of it is associated with the celebration of Jesus’ birth. That’s the reason why you’ll always see ‘Merry Christmas’ on this property.”
His German ancestry guides his family’s traditions and decorating, which provides “a great amount of joy and pride,” Heinrich said. “I’ve been doing this since I was little. My dad did decorations when I was little. And I’ve been raised to do this and this is a tradition. And as far as I’m concerned, when I’m gone, the kids are mostly taking over now, and I want them to keep doing it even when I’m not here.”
Heinrich moved to Callahan in 1974 and started decorating his property on a smaller scale. The display grew as the years went by. At one point, Heinrich and fiancée Cheryl Hodge began dressing as Santa and Mrs. Claus to wave at passersby along Old Dixie Highway. This year they’ll be available Dec. 6, 7, 13, 20 and 21.
They enjoy helping Santa Claus with the last-minute Christmas wishes they receive from children.
“It’s a high. It’s like watching your kid being born,” Heinrich said.
Hodge interjected, “It’s just a delight. Just to see the kids’ smiles and wanting to jump up. It brings back good childhood memories.”
In 2015, Heinrich found an envelope containing a card with $3 and this handwritten message written inside. “Mr. and Mrs. Santa, Thank you for doing what you do. We love seeing your lights every year and my baby girl goes crazy when she sees you beside the road. It’s not much, but this is a couple of dollars to help with your light bill and some extra candy canes to help out. Thank you again, Merry Christmas, Anonymous.”
He had the card next to his chair Thursday night, with the money still inside, to remind him of the giver’s thoughtfulness.
“Immediately, tears,” Heinrich said upon discovery of the card. “That’s why we do it. That’s exactly why we do it.”
About two years ago, a young boy wanted to see the lights and visit with Santa but was too shy and reluctant to interact with the couple.
“Last year he came and they could hardly contain him, getting out of the car,” Hodge said. “He came running and jumped up in Santa’s lap and wanted to go and walk through everything, so it’s become a tradition for a couple of different families.”
Son William Heinrich, Jr. strings the lights around the property, including adding festive red lights to the home’s porch. Three archways comprised of PVC pipe will be added before Friday to create an entry point into “Christmas World, Santa Land,” his dad said.
Hodge commented on the Christmas scenery, saying, “As soon as you come around that corner up there and it’s all lit up, it doesn’t matter what your day was like, when you come around, it just falls off you, and it just makes you a kid again. It’s so delightful. It makes you happy when you come home again.”
Heinrich’s main goal is to bring smiles to children.
“We try to make it that way,” he said. “Especially kids. You know, we’ve had them stop and want to know if they can take pictures. Again, that’s the whole reason we do what we do. If it creates a smile on one kid’s face, everything we’ve done all the work, whatever, is worth every cotton-picking minute of it.”
Weather permitting during the week, the lights are turned on at dark and stay on until 8:30 p.m. or 9. On the weekends, the lights are on until around 11 p.m.
The electric bill increases nearly $200 extra per month, but the added expense doesn’t bother the couple.
“Either way, it doesn’t matter,” Heinrich said.
“It’s what we like to do for the community to make somebody happy,” Hodge said.
As the lights twinkle on the porch at nightfall, the yard ornaments also take on new characteristics. The display is balanced.
“I think you can have too many,” William Heinrich, Jr. said. “If it’s too clustered and stuff, I think it takes away from it. It needs to be just the right balance.”
His dad loves the community feedback he receives.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Heinrich said. “When you see somebody drive by and blow their horn and give you a thumbs up when you’re working on it, you know you’re doing the right thing.”
This year, the family will celebrate with the awareness that Heinrich is in good health. He recently had a benign mass removed from his bile duct. Because of his 40-pound weight loss and side effects from the surgery, some doubted if the tradition could continue another year.
“My family and friends said, ‘It ain’t gonna happen,’” Heinrich said, adding, “We got it. To their credit, we’re going to have it.”
He expressed gratitude for the rebound, which he said was due to prayers from
friends, family and his church
family at Rivers Edge.
“I thank the good Lord and have faith in Him that He has something else for me to do,” the patriarch said. “I’ve got more Christmases to light up.”