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Wanda’s Winter Wonderland

Originally printed by Rural Missouri magazine, 2005
Updated by Crystal Howerton (with permission)

From inside a small barn painted to look like a gingerbread house, Wanda Hicks flips a switch and her yard located in rural Brashear is instantly transformed. Thousands of twinkling colored lights chase away the north Missouri darkness.
A 12-foor-tall Santa majestically inflates as a fan fills him with air.  Toy soldiers go on parade. Elves peak out of the shadows. Snow swirls in a giant globe. A holiday train seems destined for deliveries. The night is clear and a million stars blaze in the sky. But none is as bright as the 18-foot tall by 14-foot-wide double star mounted atop a 30-foot pole. The star is typical of the dozens of decorations this Tri-County Electric Cooperative member has on display. She bought it to replace one that was a mere 5 feet tall.  "It took a log truck to bring it home," Wanda says.
Elsewhere 500-watt floodlights illuminate painted plywood cutouts of snowmen, snowwomen, and snowkids. A nativity scene outlined with colored lights has its own place of honor along the circular drive. These holiday displays all contribute to the magic of Wanda’s Winter Wonderland, as it’s known. 
For Wanda, Christmas is for kids, and nothing is too extreme to make the holidays just a little brighter for them. What started as a display for neighbors and their children has since become a source of enjoyment for her own grandchildren. Wanda says her grandson, Jake, age 2, especially loves the animation in the barn.  And although Cory is just five months, there is no doubt he will find it a source of amusement as well, during the holidays to come.
Wanda traces her love for Christmas back to her own childhood. One tradition for her family was to visit a house in Granger that was all lit up.  "On Christmas Eve we would all go over there," Wanda recalls." I remember what that did for me. So I wanted to do that for other kids."
As Wanda got settled into her own home five miles north of Brashear, she started collecting and creating outdoor decorations. That was about 14 years ago–Wanda’s memory is hazy on this point.  But she is certain her "modest" efforts began with 5,000 lights, as well as plywood cutouts of Mr. and Mrs. Claus and four elves.
"The neighbors weren’t very happy," Wanda says.  "They said the kids couldn’t sleep very well at night because it was so bright."  Flash forward to 2007 and the neighbors have gotten used to the bright lights and the steady stream of traffic from hundreds of people wanting to take a look. This year, Wanda’s light display will hold steady at about 10-20,000 lights, but she has had as many as 60,000. "It doesn’t take long for a breaker to get overloaded," she says. "So I’ve backed off on the lights and started now with the inflatables the last two to three years."  However, there are only 15 inflatables on display this year, instead of the almost 30 like last year.
Wanda strives to be unique in her holiday display. So she stops wherever she and her husband, Gary, find themselves to search for new decorations.  "It went against my grain to get that snow globe because Wal-Mart sells them and everyone around here has got one," she says. "When I got the first snowman and Santa I was the first kid on the block that had them. Now inflatables are hot."
What makes Wanda’s display so unique, though, are the plywood cutouts she makes herself. She takes drawings from Christmas coloring books and then enlarges the pictures. The tracing is then transferred to plywood, cut out and painted by Wanda.  "I used to take them to work and use their overhead projector. Then I got tired of having to transport things. So I got my own projector and do it in the barn," she says.
"I started getting stuff set out the first weekend of October. This year I set the stuff out by myself with some help from my daughter."
Brightening the holidays for others is the motive behind Wanda’s holiday decorating. "It will lift spirits. It doesn’t matter if they are young or old, they will have fun."  To ensure people get in the spirit, Wanda dresses as an elf and presses her husband into service as Santa. Despite his show of reluctance, Gary enjoys the role. He’s had kids bring him their letters and wish lists.  "Santa had to talk to one little boy because his aunt said he had been bad," Wanda says, "So Gary told the boy Santa had been bad, too. He fed the elves eggs and things like that instead of candy."  Wanda’s granddaughters, Brittney and Kierstin have roles, as well.  At ages six and four, the girls just love to dress up as elves and help get visitors in the Christmas spirit.
Wanda usually has the lights and displays ready by Thanksgiving, and she keeps them on until New Year’s Eve. Sometimes people come out to pick out their Christmas tree from the Hicks’ farm and stay to watch the lights come on.   Wanda watches from inside the new Christmas shed, which is actually part of the decorations, where they work or play cards while waiting for the first car to appear. "Then I go out dressed like an elf-or Mrs. Claus to give them candy canes and homemade cookies. I’m now going to school in Sedalia, so the elf is only out there on Thursday through Sunday nights."  It’s not unusual for her to bake as many as 30 dozen cookies in preparation for a busy weekend of guests.
Visitors come from all over north Missouri, and Wanda has spotted license plates from as far away as Indiana in the steady parade. One night a helicopter hovered overhead, made two circles and then sped away.