Meet these Chattanooga-area residents who have a special connection to Christmas

Contributed photo / Former high-school sweethearts Forrest and Juel Gardner pose together after reuniting later in life and getting married.
Contributed photo / Former high-school sweethearts Forrest and Juel Gardner pose together after reuniting later in life and getting married.

It's the most wonderful time of the year in the Chattanooga area yet again. As it gets closer and closer to that beloved 25th day of December, you're sure to see Christmas lights and holiday displays galore. You'll have the chance to take a train ride that will remind you of the Polar Express or you can ice skate to your heart's content at First Horizon Pavilion. There's no shortage of things to do during the holidays in the Scenic City.

In such a festive atmosphere, you've no doubt started to put up your own decorations and gotten out your ugly Christmas sweaters, but you might also be wondering what your fellow Chattanoogans are doing to ring in the holiday. Here, you'll meet some festive folks in the region who have a special connection to the season.

  photo  Contributed photos / Juel brings a little holiday cheer to Forrest in the hospital, including this Christmas tree she created out of string lights on the wall.
 
 

 A Christmas Miracle

Ringgold residents Juel and Forrest Gardner met and dated at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private boarding school in Rabun Gap, Georgia, in 1975.

When Juel called her high school sweetheart on Christmas Eve in 2017, after they'd been out of touch for 41 years, she couldn't have known that they'd soon be getting married — and that one of their first holidays as a newly married couple would be spent in the hospital.

After the couple had reconnected, they dated for four years over the phone, while Juel remained in Washington to help take care of her grandchildren, and Forrest resided in Ringgold. Once her youngest grandchild started school full-time, Juel was able to move to Georgia and marry Forrest in August 2021.

In November of 2022, Forrest was frequently hospitalized due to ruptured intestines as a result of a cancerous tumor. Juel soon realized they would be trading in the smell of a living-room fireplace and Christmas cookies for an ambiance of disinfectants and beeping machines. To bring some festivity to the hospital room where they'd be spending their holiday, Juel took Dollar Tree string lights and miniature ornaments to the hospital, crafting a makeshift Christmas tree on the wall for Forrest to view.

"He said it meant the world to him," she says.

When it came time to celebrate New Year's Eve, Juel says she put on her best black dress, and Forrest donned his Ralph Lauren robe, a Christmas gift from his daughter, to take a stroll along the hospital corridor.

Juel says she wants to share her story about bringing Christmas cheer to the hospital to inspire anyone going through a difficult time.

Now, Forrest is almost finished with his last round of chemotherapy and will get to celebrate the holidays this year with a ring of the bell — a celebratory tradition among cancer patients who complete treatment. (And a sign at the holidays that an angel is getting his wings.)

"We've been really, really blessed," Juel says.

  photo  Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Ringgold, Ga., residents Juel and Forrest Gardner at CHI Memorial Hospital where the couple spent last Christmas while Forrest was getting treatment.
 
 

 A Matrix of Merriment

Pamela Schweighart says she grew up in Richmond, Virginia — or what she calls "the tacky lights capital." Houses in her neighborhood were always dressed to the nines in vibrant Christmas decorations, she says, so Schweighart and her husband Nate brought the tradition to their Chattanooga home when they arrived in 2008.

The decoration collection started small and grew each year when the Schweigharts would stock up on supplies for next year at end-of-season sales.

Now, Schweighart says people in her neighborhood come to see their extensive Christmas decorations each year — and that this year's collection will be topped off with a new LED matrix display that syncs animations with the songs playing. For example, visitors will see a grandmother and a reindeer on the matrix when the song "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" plays.

The yard display includes a Waldo figurine from the book "Where's Waldo?" and Schweighart says that people love trying to find where he's hiding each year.

The endless lights, yard figurines and singing Christmas trees timed to the music take the Schweighart family three to four weeks to put together. Schweighart says that Nate programs the technical aspects because he is an engineer, and her kids also help decorate.

This year's decor will be dedicated to Schweighart's father, who passed away in 2022. He used to help her stake down all of the figures in the yard and put the display together, so she says this year will be difficult without him.

At the end of the season, it takes one to two weeks to take down the lights and get them placed back in the attic, where the family stores their treasure trove of Christmas decor during the rest of the year.

People always ask her how their ornate display impacts their power bill. The LED lights don't drive it up too much, she says, which makes the cost comparable to summer levels.

"It makes us happy, and all the neighbors and everybody who stops by say how happy it makes them, so it's just joyful," says Schweighart.


Timeless Tradition

  photo  Contributed photos / Dick Crotteau and his family utilize fresh Christmas greenery throughout their home.
 
 

 Dick Crotteau and his family enjoy simple holiday decor that is "timeless," he says. The family wears red wool with a "touch of velvet," which Crotteau says is usually in the collar of the shirt.

His identical twin granddaughters were often dressed in matching holiday outfits when they were younger. He and his daughter use fresh greenery to decorate both the interior and exterior of their homes.

"We like to economize plus connect to a simpler time when my grandmothers used mostly greenery," Crotteau says.

He finds it helpful when his grandson Miller cuts fresh greenery from the family's farm that can be used to decorate. He says that having nature around brings his family peace. Once the greenery is set, Crotteau's family adds candlelight and an abundance of food to top off the festive environment.


'Hoppy Holidays'

  photo  Contributed photos / During the holiday season, Nancy Carpenter adorns her home with a wide variety of rabbits.
 
 

 When Chattanooga resident Nancy Carpenter was going through chemotherapy treatments in the 1990s, she says she found trinket-collecting to be a great outlet to combat the tough time she was going through. Her sister enjoyed collecting mice figurines, and this inspired the idea for Carpenter to collect bunny rabbit paraphernalia.

  photo  Contributed photos / Nancy Carpenter's plush rabbits can be found all throughout her home during the holiday season.
 
 

 Carpenter says she and her husband used to travel, and she would find rabbits to add to her collection along the way. Over the years, her love for rabbits earned her the title of "Grandbunny" from her younger family members, she says with pride. A friend of her step-granddaughter ran into her at the hospital recently, and she says the friend remembered to call her Grandbunny.

For the holidays, Carpenter adorns her home with a rabbit-themed Christmas tree, a Bugs Bunny Christmas tree and various merchandise featuring a pink bunny suit-clad Ralphie from "A Christmas Story." On other holidays like Halloween, she adorns the bedrooms in her home with spooky decorations and rabbits with witch hats to celebrate.

"My family thinks I'm crazy, but the little ones love it," Carpenter says.

From rabbit ornaments to rabbit furniture to rabbit plush toys in every bedroom and even her very own pink rabbit suit, Grandbunny says she loves to decorate for the holidays.

(READ MORE: From Santa sightings to holiday lights, Chattanoogans share their favorite holiday memories)

  photo  Contributed photos / Chattanooga resident Nancy Carpenter has earned the title of "Grandbunny" from her family members. Above, Carpenter is wearing her rabbit suit with a standup poster cutout of Ralphie, the lead character in "A Christmas Story."
 
 

 Santa's Little Helpers

For the past several years, Patsy Boles and her canine companion, Obi-Wan Kenobi, a 5 1/2-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, have spread Christmas cheer by dressing up as elves to deliver freshly baked, elegantly boxed cookies to major contributors to the Humane Educational Society, such as animal clinics, pet stores and groomers.

Boles first started dressing up as an elf to ring the bell for the Salvation Army, and when the Humane Society needed volunteers to deliver their cookie boxes, she got her dog involved in the effort. She delivered the cookies with her previous dog, Yoda, before continuing the tradition with Kenobi, who had a different name until a friend convinced Boles to change it, in order to stick with the "Star Wars" theme.

  photo  Contributed photo / Patsy Boles and her canine companion, Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, enjoy delivering cookies to contributors to the Humane Educational Society.
 
 

 Boles says that the people on the receving end of the cookie deliveries really enjoy seeing her and Kenobi in costume. Some even take pictures.

"It's just the smiles and the happiness that it brings to somebody else who's doing something to support the Humane Society," she says of the enjoyment she gets from dressing up with Kenobi.

In addition to delivering cookies to Humane Society supporters, Boles and Kenobi spread the holiday spirit further by visiting local senior-living facilities in costume as well.

Kenobi came from a breeding farm in Dade County, Georgia, where 80 dogs were rescued, Boles says. And some of those dogs were sent to the Humane Society here. Accroding to Boles, spaniels like Kenobi are social dogs that don't bark much and are very companion-oriented.

"So they're very good to take to see senior adults or kids anywhere, because they never meet a strange person or a strange dog," she says of the breed.


Light up the night ... a lot

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Douglas DeLong gives a tour of his creation.
 
 

(READ MORE: Bradley Lights amps up the seasonal cheer in Cleveland, Tennessee)

Douglas DeLong has always put up Christmas lights, but after seeing a commercial in which the lights were synchronized to music, he brought his decorating to a grander level. Since 2006, DeLong has decked out the front yard of his Cleveland home, known as Bradley Lights, with props and thousands of lights to create an elaborate winter wonderland for the enjoyment of people in the area.

Spectators park in DeLong's yard and tune in to a radio station to listen to his playlist of songs, a mix of old and new for everybody's taste. As each song plays, the lights flash across the yard in a synchronous dance to the beat.

With 11,000 followers on the Bradley Lights Facebook page, DeLong says that the response to the display has been positive, and visiting the house to see the lights is a holiday tradition for some people. He started the display for himself and his family, but he's glad more people enjoy it, he says.

"Actually, it's almost like a challenge, 'Could I do it?'" DeLong says of the endeavor. "And now I can't stop doing it because there'd be anarchy with all the people who come every year."

  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Douglas DeLongs synchronized Christmas light display can be found at his home in Cleveland, Tenn.
 
 

Planning for each year's display begins in January, after the previous display is taken down, DeLong says. He starts by planning the layout, and then, over the next several months, he constructs his props, either by hand or by using his 3D printer. Starting in October, he spends five weekends setting up and two weeks testing the lights so the display can go live the day after Thanksgiving.

Over the years, Bradley Lights has seen plenty of changes. Notably, when he began, DeLong used standard strands of Christmas lights, but nowadays, he uses specialized lights that can be individually programmed to be any color; he estimates there are about 35,000 of these lights.

In addition to spreading holiday cheer, DeLong also uses Bradley Lights to support the Cleveland-based charity The Caring Place, which serves families and individuals in need. Donations made during the 2022 display's run totaled over $3,000, according to a post on the Bradley Lights Facebook page.

After putting in the work for over a decade, DeLong doesn't seem to have any intentions of winding down the display.

"I'd have to move before I could stop," he says.

If you go:

— When: Nov. 24-Jan. 1; sometimes later.

— Where: 3787 Blue Springs Road, Cleveland.

— Hours: 6-10:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 6-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

— Support: Donations can be made to The Caring Place at thecaringplaceonline.org.

— More info: facebook.com/BradleyLights.


  photo  Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Douglas DeLong of Bradley Lights makes some final adjustments to his light display.
 
 
 

 Things to do in Chattanooga this holiday season:

— Check out the holiday window display at EPB: A tradition dating back decades, the display windows at the EPB office at 10 W. M.L. King Blvd. are decked out every year in lights, toys and more to bring festive cheer to all passersby. The display can be viewed on the Broad and Market Street sides of the office building.

— Take a stroll under the lights of the Walnut Street Bridge: Just because it's chilly outside doesn't mean you can't enjoy a nice walk in the fresh air. It makes a winter walk even better when it's illuminated by beautiful seasonal lights along Chattanooga's iconic Walnut Street Bridge — it's great for photos too (a win-win).

— Put on your skates and take a lap, or several, around the rink at Ice on the Landing: It doesn't matter if you're an Olympic-caliber skater or if you've never even worn a skate before; everyone can enjoy the fun at Ice on the Landing, which this year, will now operate out of First Horizon Pavilion, 1801 Reggie White Blvd. The skating experience is open through Jan. 28. Tickets cost $12 for adults and $10 for children 12 and under. Learn more at iceonthelanding.com.

— Ride the rails this season with the Tennessee Valley Railroad: Live out your very own Polar Express journey this holiday season with the Tennessee Valley Railroad. They've got train experiences for just about everybody, including their North Pole Limited Christmas Train, Nightcap with St. Nick for those 21 and older and a Santa's Hiwassee Holiday train ride through the scenic Hiwassee River Gorge. Prices and times vary. Learn more at tvrail.com.

  photo  Contributed photo / Pamela Schweighart and her husband, Nate, are excited to unveil their newest lighting display. This year, it has a new LED matrix display that syncs animations with music.
 
 


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