By Donna Thornton/News Editor
Each year as Christmas draws near, the Gilleys’ farm in the Ball Play community turns into a riot of light and motion, as brothers Donnie and Mike Gilley continue a tradition their father started in the mid-1980s to share the joy and the meaning of Christmas with friends and neighbors.
The yard of the Gilleys’ home on Gilley Road is covered in hand-made, lighted Christmas displays, ranging from a life-sized camel and an oversized fish; an alligator and turtle to Santa in a helicopter and a spinning globe with dancing dolls at its center.
There are small ferris wheels and a carousel with wooden horses, an ark with a rainbow overlooking it and two large spinning footballs, one red and white, one orange and blue.
As the brothers sit on the porch of the home their parents J.C. and Cassie Gilley built in the 1940s, watching visitors marvel over their late father’s handiwork, they shared the story of how the light display became what it is today.
Mike said his father had gotten some motorized model airplanes, the handheld kind that circle the operator.
“He couldn’t go more then two or three circles without getting drunk,” Mike said, so he constructed a stand for the planes. Later on, he put it in the yard and ran power to it and covered it in Christmas lights to celebrate the holiday season.
The neighbors would stop by and look at it, Donnie and Mike recalled, and over time, J.C. added to the display, constructing more elaborate moving figures with welded wire frames.
Many of the displays include wooden figures.
“Daddy whittled those out by hand,” Mike said. “After he got some of the small (displays) started, he’d add one a year.”
The last figure to join the collection was a large elf that climbs a pole, then lowers itself and climbs again. Mike said it was added in 2001, the year that Christmas found his father falling ill. When it was time to put the lights out that year, he said his father was not able to be out much, but he would look over the display from the front porch.
“He told me, ‘Mike, we didn’t make it strong enough at the top for that climbing man,’ and he told me how to fix it,” Mike said. When he followed his father’s instructions, the climber worked well.
J.C. Gilley survived that Christmas season, but he passed away in January 2002.
“After the funeral, we were sitting around the table and I said I wanted to keep the lights going one more year, in honor of Daddy,” Donnie said.
They did, and found friends – those nearby and those who visit from far away – begging them to keep lighting the lights at Christmas time. As their father had been, the brothers were led by the encouragement of those who loved the lights, which traditionally start on Thanksgiving.
“People told Daddy they wished he would have them up at Thanksgiving so they could bring family while they were visiting,” Donnie said.
Many people assumed the light would be dimmed after J.C.’s death, but there’s been only one year, Mike said, without them. In 2009, they were working to set up the lights when Cassie Gilley suffered a heart attack. She was hospitalized, Mike said, and the family put up a sign explaining why the display was not in operation. Cassie was hospitalized for a couple of weeks, suffered another heart attack during that time, and succumbed to her condition.
“I didn’t really appreciate all my Daddy did until after he was gone. I just expected it,” Donnie said. “There’s not a thing out there that I don’t understand how it works. But there’s no way I could figure out how to do it myself.”
Their father, Mike said, would talk to them about something to add to the display and the next day he’d say “I built it last night,” meaning he’d worked out in his mind how to construct what he wanted.
The brothers remember people asked what kind of engineer their father was. He wasn’t. He was born into a sawmill family, they said, and when he was 18 he opened his own mechanics’ shop. Over the years, he built houses in Anniston, he farmed and he retired as a diesel mechanic. He could do whatever he put his mind to, it seems, with the help and support of wife Cassie, and they instilled in their family a love of Christmas and its true meaning.
Among all the whirring motors and bright lights, there is a manger scene, with Mary and Joseph rocking Jesus in a manger as Joseph’s foot keeps time and Mary churns butter. There is a cross, and there is an empty tomb, the stone that serves as its door rolled away.
“That’s always there, too,” Donnie said of the tomb. “A lot of people don’t know anymore what Christmas actually is.
“I love the beauty of the lights. But Christmas is totally about the birth of our Lord and Savior.” It was important to his parents that the Lord’s story not be lost in the lights.
As to the logistics of the Gilleys’ light display, the brothers said they start putting it together in October, working as they have time, with the goal of getting the lights ready by Thanksgiving. They usually continue the display nightly through Dec. 27. This year, it will continue to Dec. 29, they said to give people the weekend to visit.
The Gilleys don’t talk about what such a display does to their electric bill each year, other than to say it rises substantially.
There are donation boxes up at the farm, and Mike said people have been generous to help them keep the display going.
“If it weren’t for donations,” Donnie said, “we couldn’t do this.”
Their father was reluctant to put up boxes for donations, they said, until people started to donate anyway and encouraged him provide a way to give.
“He wanted this to be for everybody,” Mike said. “He didn’t want anyone to think they had to pay.”
Donations remain optional at the Gilley farm. Those who can and want to, give. But everyone is welcome, the brothers say, to stop their car (or bus) and wander among the lights and moving figures.
The Gilley brothers and other family members are there usually, on the porch, to see the joy that their father’s handiwork continues to give during the Christmas season.
Gilley’s legacy in lights continues in Ball Play
By Donna Thornton/News Editor