Christmas display began simply as backyard decorations; it now welcomes thousands of visitors each year.
by Dolores Cabaniss, Member and Public Relations Specialist
Snowmen and angels and elves, oh my! Bobby Smith and his wife, Susan, know how to design a spectacular Christmas lights display. Freeman Lights, located on the Smiths’ property in Freeman, Va., began as a backyard display, which grew into a dazzling Christmas lights event that welcomes visitors by the thousands each year. It is a labor of love for the couple, one that o ers fun and magical wonderment to kids of all ages.
‘IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME’
“We started out decorating our backyard,” says Bobby Smith. “Each year we added to it, and eventually, we accumulated enough where we thought it would make a decent-sized walk-through for our tenants to enjoy as well. Our place is a half-mile o the road. No one knew we existed.” The Smiths, Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative Members, own and live in Superior Manor, a mobile home park in rural Brunswick County off Hwy. 58.
Their anonymity was short-lived, however, with a stranger’s fortuitous turn down their driveway. “In early December 2019, this guy pulled up in the yard. He said he had followed the lights to see where they went,” says Smith. “It turned out he was Santa Claus!”
The visiting Santa was Ed Bryant, a retired police officer from Emporia, and a longtime Good Samaritan in Greensville County and beyond.
“I was on the way to a ballgame, and I saw these lights and something told me to turn down that path,” Bryant says. “The trees were lit along the way, and I thought it looked nice, and then I rounded this curve and thought ‘holy smokes!’
“They have created something truly special to see. They don’t just put lights out there, everything about it is so organized and well thought out. My wife and I encouraged them to share this with the public.”
With the Smiths’ permission, Bryant’s wife, Kay, posted pictures and a message about Freeman Lights on her Facebook page. Soon, people started showing up.
“The response was overwhelming,” says Smith. “And we weren’t prepared. There wasn’t enough parking, people were knocking on our door asking to use the bathroom. By the end of that first December, we knew we had an important decision to make … either pack it in or give the people what they want.
“When Susan and I looked back over those past several weeks, we thought about how the kids all had so much fun. The grownups, too,” he adds quickly. “We really had no choice but to keep going.”
The next year, the couple brought in porta johns, added a return loop to the driveway to prevent traffic snarls, widened the footpaths, and expanded and improved the parking area. The quarter-mile walk-through is aglow with lighted archways, twinkling lights high in trees and as ground cover, and well over 200 wire frames and inflatables of angels, snowmen, Santas and elves, Snoopy and Dr. Seuss, all meticulously placed by Bobby using only a 12-foot ladder and a 30-foot pole. He begins the decorating operation the day after Halloween each year.
The Freeman Lights experience begins and ends with a nativity scene, a conscious decision by the Smiths to keep Christ in Christmas. Every available space of the walk-through is strategically filled with something delightfully bright, and each display has accompanying music. “Susan always seems to find just the right music to go with each display. She is very talented,” says Smith.
To the delight of kids young and old, Ed and Kay Bryant appear as Santa and his Elf two or three times a season.
In 2019, Smith estimated that he had 100,000 lights, but they add more each year and he says now it would be hard to even guess how many there are. The Christmas lights spectacular has continued to grow, and the 2022 event saw over 11,000 visitors to the walk-through wonderland, and the couple served more than 375 gallons of hot chocolate. “The nights were what I called organized chaos. Susan and I were exhausted at the end of each night, but we love every minute of it.”
This year, the Smiths plan on opening the lights every night in December from 5:45-9 p.m., weather permitting. “In the past we closed on Mondays to give us a break,” says Smith. “This year Christmas is on a Monday, so we decided to forgo the off nights and do 30 nights straight.”
THEY DO IT FOR THE SMILES
It is no easy task setting up the displays. In fact, it’s a lot of hard work and there are costs involved, but the Smiths’ motivation is the smiles they bring. Everything is free and, according to Smith, will always be free. “There will never be an admission charge,” he asserts. “Susan and I both grew up hard and know what it’s like to struggle. We know there’s a lot of kids out there who wouldn’t get to come here if there was a charge.
“Coming to see the lights is an event, and it can bring a tremendous amount of emotion to people,” says Smith. “We have picnic tables to sit and soak it all in. We added a firepit for visitors to warm themselves by, or they can roast a marshmallow if they want, which we provide, and we serve hot chocolate.”
He continues, “We’ll sit and talk to the people some, and I’ve heard some amazing stories. Maybe they’ve had a difficult year, and we hope we’ve lifted their spirits and brought a little joy into their life.”
“Bobby has a servant’s heart and is very instrumental to community service,”says Bryant. “He does so much good. He puts in a tremendous amount of work and doesn’t charge a dime for admission. “He has a donation box he sets out. He’ll use the money to buy items for the next year or give to someone in need,” he continues. “They’ll buy stuff and bring to me, and I distribute it where it’s needed.”
Bryant is well-known throughout Greensville County for his altruistic efforts to help veterans, children, the elderly and shut-ins.
Bryant continues, “In 2021, after my daughter passed away, he gave all the donations to her scholarship fund, the Kandy Bryant Poarch Memorial Scholarship at Southside Virginia Community College. Another day I came home and found three brand-new bicycles on my porch. I knew where they had come from,” he says with a smile.
Says Smith, “As long as you’re here on Earth you have a purpose. I guess mine would be making people smile. The benefits you get back, the appreciation that people show, you can’t buy it. It’s spontaneous and authentic. And it’s priceless. We never dreamed we’d become a yearly tradition for so many families, but you never know what the future holds. We would do it all again, 10 times over.”
Freeman Lights to Be a Contender on “The Great Christmas Light Fight”
Freeman Lights used to be one of Southside Virginia’s best-kept secrets, but soon the spectacular Christmas light display will gain nationwide attention. Its creators, Bobby and Susan Smith, are scheduled to be contenders on the ABC hit competition series, “The Great Christmas Light Fight” this holiday season. The show takes viewers across the country to the most elaborate and awe-inspiring holiday displays.
“We got a call from the show in 2021. They said they had seen videos of the lights online and wanted to know if we would be interested in appearing on the show,” says Bobby Smith. “We were still growing and didn’t think we were ready, so we turned them down. They called back in early 2022, and again we turned them down.
“Susan and I talked about it, and we thought about Ed Bryant.” The Smiths consider Bryant to be the catalyst for convincing them to turn Freeman Lights into the successful public display it is today. “We thought it would be cool for Ed to see this on TV, so I called them back and finally said yes to the show.”
The Freeman Lights episode was filmed in late November 2022. “Our yard looked like game day on ESPN with all of the trucks and vans,” says Smith. “Filming was a lot of fun. The crew was really impressed with our large parking area and the availability of the electricity. They didn’t have to set up a lot of their own generators.”
As of press time, the series’ air dates had not been released.