How one family’s Christmas tradition became a regional event
By Amy Eddings
Many families decorate their homes and front yards for Christmas, hanging colored lights from the gutters and wreaths on the front door. Very few families have those public expressions of holiday cheer embraced by an entire community.
That’s what happened to the late Harry and Dorothy Reams’ display of painted plywood Christmas characters and scenes. Charming in their simplicity, quaint in their homespun quality, these folk art characters have become the heart of the Village of Bluffton’s Blaze of Lights holiday display and celebration, and the emotional center of many residents’ fondest holiday memories.
From the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when they are officially illuminated in a lighting ceremony, to the day after New Year’s Day, they silently watch over Bluffton’s commercial strip from the yard of the Bluffton Presbyterian Church at North Main and Cherry streets.
The tradition began in 1939 at the Reams’ farm east of Bluffton, in rural Jenera. Harry Ream, a farmer and handyman, and Dorothy Ream, a public school art teacher, mounted three white plywood deer in their yard. Then came a Nativity scene, placed under the eaves of their barn. Flood lights were added, to highlight the decorations.
From time to time, the Reams created a new figure, Harry Ream sawing them out of plywood, Dorothy Ream painting them. There was a mittened child depositing a letter for Santa in a big blue mailbox. There was a little old woman sitting in a rocking chair, reading her Bible. The chair was motorized and rocked back and forth.
Neighbors noticed. Word spread.
“People would drive out to see it,” said Fred Steiner, CEO of the Bluffton Area Chamber of Commerce, which organizes and finances the Blaze of Lights. “I mean, nobody did this. There weren’t Christmas displays in the mid-1950s. This was one of a kind.”
Steiner said the effect of the Reams’ folk art display in that remote country setting was electrifying, in all senses of the word.
“If you can imagine, driving out in the country —” he paused, summoning his memories. Steiner, who’s 66, said he first saw the Reams’ Christmas display when he was in grade school. “Today, there are lights all over the place. There weren’t lights [then]. You could see this thing from miles away. You’d say, ‘Oh, there it is.’”
“I just remember there were lines and lines of cars, and you just had to wait your turn,” said Terry Mullenhour, 63, head of Bluffton’s Cultural Affairs Committee, which manages the display. “Everybody had to turn off their headlights because you wanted to get the full effect, and if somebody didn’t turn off their headlights, everybody was mad.”
For nearly 50 years, the Reams kept up their holiday tradition, until Dorothy Ream died. Harry Ream approached several people who were deeply involved in Bluffton’s civic life, asking if the village would like to acquire it. One of them was Beverly Amstutz’s dad, Gene Benroth.
“[The family] wanted to get rid of it. [Dorothy] did most of the work,” Amstutz said. “Dad said, ‘No, let me find a place for it.’ He was a Presbyterian, my dad. So he asked the people at church, can we put it in the church yard?”
That was in 1986. Since then, the Reams’ display has grown from the approximately 40 figures they created to more than 120. Others have contributed pieces, including Bluffton High School’s art students and church groups. A new piece is added every year.
“We usually keep it a secret,” said Mullenhour, who has made several figures and repairs the old ones. Sometimes, the new piece is announced during the lighting ceremony. “Sometimes, people have to hunt for it.”
She said her favorite is a little girl with a red dress.
“She has a huge sign with ‘Merry Christmas’ in all different languages,” Mullenhour said. “I just like her. She’s just a pretty little girl. She was the first piece I repaired, too.”
Mullenhour said the little plywood figure was riddled with screw holes where volunteers over the years had secured her to wooden stakes.
“She looked like she’d been shot. She had 12 to 13 holes right in her middle,” she said.
Bluffton officials and community leaders have built an entire holiday event around the simple painted figures. The Blaze of Lights includes a parade down Main Street, with floats, marching bands, horse-drawn wagons, antique cars and fire trucks. Merchants decorate their windows and vie for prizes for the best one. There’s an ice sculptor and a wood carver. Choral groups sing Christmas carols and, at dusk, everyone counts down to the moment when a designated “switch hitter” flips on the more than 10,000 lights that give the festival its name.
Eighteen-year-old Patrick Rhonemus said that, as a kid, the Blaze of Lights held for him the anticipation of Christmas Eve, as well as the gleeful abundance of Christmas morning.
“Everyone’s all happy, there are lots of things going on,” he said. “I bugged my parents, I wanted to stay up the entire time, from when the parade went through to when they turned on the lights.”
Main Street isn’t the only section of Bluffton that’s aglow with the holiday spirit. The Bluffton Area Chamber of Commerce provides maps to visitors to other parts of the village where residents have established especially noteworthy displays. This includes a light show in a parking lot on the south side of town called Gift of Giving, which offers a more high-tech rendition of the experience the Reams created 76 years ago.
“It’s like a drive-in theater,” explained Steiner. “You drive in the lot, park, turn your radio to a certain radio station, and watch the show. It’s every 15 minutes, from 6 to 11 each night.”
He said last year, the Chamber handed out 500 maps.
“That’s how many vehicles are coming to Bluffton,” he said.
“I’m always surprised at the attendance, at how many people come out, sometimes in spite of the weather,” said Judy Augsburger, Bluffton’s mayor. “The atmosphere is really neat. It’s a wonderful community event.”