Thursday, January 01, 2009

Overley's Country Christmas Gets a Thumbs Up!

“Brrrr, Momma. It’s cold in here.”

Despite my daughter Suzie’s complaints, I stubbornly refused to close the driver side car windows. Even with the Toyota heater turned to the maximum red zone and the fan turned to high, the December air nipped our exposed faces.

“We can’t be looking at Overly’s Christmas lights through the car windows. Besides we need to hear the Christmas carols too. Just zip your coat to the neck and stuff your hands in your pockets.”

The tradition of Overly’s Country Christmas goes back over 50 years when Harry Overly first decorated his rural Armburst home with a few stands of lights. When I saw the display for the first time some 26 years ago, it had grown from few to many. The elaborate display featured white lights intricately strung on the branches of trees and attached in rows on miles of fence that outlined the property. I remember a living nativity scene and Santa on the roadside handing red and green lollipops to all the children in each passing car. Santa’s elves greeted the visitors and accepted donations to benefit children’s medical services.

Each year Harry Overly added more lights and even animated some of the display. I remember my favorites: a horse pulling a carriage with light synchronized to look like the legs and wheels actually moved, a cascading fountain, and a rotating carousel. The lights outlining his house, ringing the perimeter of his property fence, and illuminating all the figures, could be seen from the nearby hilltops. It was a photographer’s delight and a Christmas tradition for the many families who inched by the display in the bumper-to-bumper traffic backed up for miles.

The attraction grew with more visitors and more lights. After the 35 years that the light display was held at this private home, Overly’s display moved to the 15 acre site of the Westmoreland Fairgrounds in Greensburg where it’s now called Overly’s Country Christmas. The display features 2.4 million twinkling lights. It is a nationally recognized holiday light display. That’s where we were on this freezing December night – me, my Mom, Suzie and my son’s little girl, my five-year-old granddaughter Brianna.

Brianna and I didn’t mind the cold. Our excitement gave us warmth. As we drove the circuit around the light display, Brianna squealed when she saw the fairy castle. Could it be Cinderella’s palace? We saw my old favorites and more: the outline of railroad depot and train engine, familiar cartoon characters, and outlines of old town buildings. When we’d finished our drive around the holiday lights, I parked the car on the hard packed dirt lot so we could enter Overly’s Country Christmas Village. Red, white, and blue nutcracker soldiers guarded the entrance to the magical place.

First, we stopped at Hartman Station, the G-gauge model train display, partly to warm-up in the heated building. The village looked real, suspended in a time when train transportation moved people and commerce through the countryside. Nostalgic like the trains, a team of horses stood outside ready to pull a wagon load of people through the light display. Suzie and Brianna were immediately drawn to the horses, more interested in talking to them and stroking their manes instead of a ride.

Now, where’s the Talking Christmas Tree? We detected it by the crowd of knee-high children clutching the hands of parents. They stood in wonder as this broad, tall tree with colorful lights and big eyes asked their names, the name of the town where they lived, and whether they’d been to see Santa yet. I introduced Brianna and myself to the Talking Christmas Tree because Brianna would not say a word. The whole time we stood in front of this child mystifying pine, I served as Brianna’s mouth piece. She’d whisper something in my ear and I’d have to relay the message to the Talking Christmas Tree. “Tell the Tree about Brady….Tell the Tree I am five years old and go to pre-school…Ask the Tree if the Grinch will steal Christmas.” That last question drew an emphatic response from the Tree, “We have the very best of security,” said the Talking Christmas Tree with conviction. “There is absolutely no way the Grinch will ever steal Christmas!” Brianna felt reassured and so did I.

We made another stop to get warm. This time we huddled close to the bonfire where the heat from the flames warmed our faces and with a turn our back sides too. We agreed our next stop would be a visit to Santa.

The line to Santa’s lap ran the length of his workshop and moved slow enough that we could browse the display of antique toys. Brianna’s big brown eyes opened wide with wonder as we looked at the Christmas tree, candy cane striped candles, baby dolls, a Mickey Mouse stuffed toy, kid’s size pool table, and antique toddler pull toy in the shape of a cow. A photographer from the Scottdale Independent newspaper on assignment to cover Overly’s Country Christmas saw Brianna. He asked permission to candidly photograph her while we waited in line. Brianna had not heard this adult conversation so she continued to lean over the protective rail staring at all the toys. Several days later, her photo hit the front page of the newspaper. She was most surprised when I showed her. She never knew she’d been photographed that night. She’d been preoccupied with the toys and reviewing the list of gifts she’d ask Santa to bring her on Christmas.

We left the warmth of Santa’s warm workshop to give Brianna a ride on the kiddy train. Each time she passed the spectators – Grandma Helen, Aunt Suzie and me – Grandma Patty – she gave a wave and big smile.

The wind blew. “Brrrr,” I heard Suzie say. “Let’s go to the gift shop.” Colorful nutcracker soldiers of assorted sizes filled the rows of shelves. Tree ornaments hung on evergreen covered pegs. On a floor level shelf, Brianna found a ball of fresh mistletoe with a red ribbon. Suzie knelt down to see what Brianna had found. “Aunt Suzie, look! It’s mistletoe,” Brianna held the ball above Suzie’s head and kissed her. That moment, it didn’t matter how cold we felt. Brianna warmed us through and through with that one gesture – a kiss under the mistletoe at Overly’s Country Christmas!

December 17, 2008

Overly’s Country Christmas

116 Blue Ribbon Lane

Greensburg, PA 15601


Open beginning at 5:30 pm from

mid-November to January 1

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