Ridin' Around, Looking at Christmas Lights

Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - by Harmon Jolley
Volunteer State Life Insurance was a point along the Christmas lights tour.  Click to enlarge.
Volunteer State Life Insurance was a point along the Christmas lights tour. Click to enlarge.

“Let’s go ridin’ around, looking at Christmas lights this evening,” was often the suggested plan for December entertainment when I was growing up. The call might come as a result of a visit from extended family or friends. In the days of cheap gasoline and electricity, it didn’t divert much funding from the domestic budget. It was also a way to tour the new subdivisions around town.

Exterior Christmas decorating was once a city-wide contest in Chattanooga. The December 17, 1967 Chattanooga Times reported “Annual Contests for Lighting On.” The Electric Power Board, Electric League of Chattanooga, and thirty-three garden clubs sponsored the competition that must have been highly profitable for the NOMA (National Outfit Manufacturers Assocation) Electric Corporation.

Garden clubs were once popular organizations, with many neighborhoods participating in them. During the rest of the year, these civic groups worked hard to beautify both small and large areas where they lived. For instance, the May 17, 1931 Chattanooga Times contained photo coverage of the work of the Cameron Hill Garden Club to build a rock garden near the old fire hall on West Sixth Street. As Christmas approached, the garden clubs began planning how their communities would highlight homes and street corners.

Looking over the list of thirty-three entrants in the 1967 contest, I recognized several that my family visited. Some were relatively new subdivisions of the Brainerd and Eastdale area, including Indian Hills, Pinoak, and Woodmore. Others, such as Forest Plaza and Cloverdale, were new addresses in Hixson.

The decorations were more than just thousands of colored lights. There were displays crafted from plywood, and then painted or covered with tinsel. Quite a few carpenters had obviously spent a lot of time working with jigsaws and hammers. Some exhibits garnered a few “ooh, look there”s from my mother, grandmother, or aunt. I recall that my uncle, however, always enjoyed pointing out “There are a lot of families named Noel in this subdivision.

On the way back home, we might take a side trip through downtown to see more lights. Brightly illuminated strands of lights were draped across Market Street. Animated figures were on display in the windows of the Electric Power Board, Loveman’s, and Miller Brothers. Provident and Interstate insurance companies decorated their buildings. Hamilton National Bank put a real Christmas tree atop its building. Volunteer State Life combined red strands of lights with its usual green-lettered sign, and put a bright white light atop the flag pole.

In the fall of 1973, the energy crisis put a sudden damper on the nation’s Christmas lighting. The November 10, 1973 Chattanooga Times reported “Dimouts Planned in State Cities.” Locally, the Chattanooga Retail Merchants Association said that there would be no downtown lighting. Interstate Life canceled its Christmas tree lighting.

Eventually, the holiday illumination returned to homes and to businesses. However, the number of garden clubs declined as more women moved into the labor force. Some neighborhoods gained notoriety for their megawatts of Christmas lighting that attracted sight-seekers and accompanying traffic gridlock. The lighting competitions, however, have never regained their former prominence.
If you have memories of the Christmas lighting competitions, please send me an e-mail at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.

Merry Christmas and Happy 2010 to all readers!

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