With the annual Christmas Open House quickly approaching, Nelda Lewis and her fellow decorators at Grand Oaks are busy transforming the late 1800s Greek revival structure into a holiday showstopper. The design team — also consisting of Grand Oaks owner Ray Thacker, Richard Hunt, Debbie McKaig and MaryJohn Chapman — is utilizing thousands of ornaments, as well as life-size nutcrackers, ribbons and greenery to provide a festive atmosphere for the Nov. 22 gathering.
“[Getting ready for the open house] goes on in my head pretty much all year,” said Lewis, adding she starts decorating the venue in October. “We see things. We talk about things and start developing ideas ... and then we kind of pursue it from there. Through the year, we’ll pick up things to [help] accomplish that. ... I think we’re fortunate enough to work in a beautiful place and, having said that, that’s where I get my inspiration from is being surrounded by beautiful things, whether it’s God’s creations outside the windows or something [Ray Thacker has] bought. That’s what gives me my inspiration.
“I think I counted last year [that] there were 24 Christmas trees on the inside and then we did at least a dozen outside. Sometimes we’ll add multiple trees in different rooms, so it may not be exactly the same. The one thing we do is [take photographs] every year, so we can try to make it different [in the future].”
This year, an eclectic mix of ornaments are adorning more than 20 Christmas trees inside Grand Oaks. American flags, hats, musical instruments, woodland creatures and miniature baskets of cotton are just a handful of ornaments nestled throughout themed trees, varying in height, texture and color scheme.
“[When the doors open it is] like when I was 5 years old and getting up to see what Santa Claus had brought us,” said Thacker, who purchased Grand Oaks in 1983. “It’s a feeling of joy, accomplishment and just letting people come in and see the magic of Christmas. What I enjoy is just to see the look of ‘really, I can’t believe my eyes’ and the expressions of ‘wow, this is unbelievable.’ Then they always say, ‘I cannot imagine the work that goes into this.’ ... A lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh this reminds me [of] when I was a child or some of the toys that we had then.’ They’re amazed at the ideas that go into the trees.
“When they first come here, I want them to feel welcome. I want them to feel the love and the warmth of this house, and then the excitement of it.”
Next Sunday, Southern hospitality, holiday cheer and higher education will go hand-in-hand at the annual Christmas Open House. From 2 to 5 p.m., a $10 donation will enable each guest to be treated to refreshments, while viewing a plethora of holiday decorations at the special-events venue, located at 302 W. Main St. in Cartersville.
Proceeds from the event will help fund a scholarship that Thacker and his siblings formed in memory of their parents, Hubert and Eva. Administered by the Etowah Scholarship Foundation, the memorial scholarship has annually awarded funds to two recipients, who have needed financial assistance, since the 1980s.
“Out of 10 people in my family, including my mom and my dad, education was not that important because we were sharecroppers. It was more important to get the crops in and things like that,” Thacker said. “Out of all the children, there was only one that got a college education and only three that got a high school education. ... So I thought if I could do something to help people with their scholarships or donate money to them to help them with the expense of college [I would].
“... What it means to me is that I was able to help somebody get an education and, then in response to that, that those people that got the scholarships ... see how it had helped them and then when they get out of college, when they get their job started, they can start giving back to the community. That’s what I’ve seen in the community, because we’ve had so many people ... [who] have come back and they [have] been cornerstones of the community, which I think is very important.”
Attending the open house since its inception in the mid-1980s, Dianne Tate — a neighbor of Thacker’s — enjoys the event’s festive decor and philanthropic spirit.
“It’s beautifully decorated with a tree in every room, every spot is decorated,” Tate said. “It’s something that you can’t see many places outside of maybe the Biltmore, and it’s right here in our town.
“... Maybe even more important than just the sheer beauty and the food, it’s amazing how much money Ray and Grand Oaks gives to scholarships to help people in this community, and to me, that’s really important. I think a lot of people remember that when they come. They’re coming for a good time, but they know they’re really going to be helping some young people. I think that means a lot to folks that they can combine those two things.”
For more information about Grand Oaks’ Christmas Open House, call 770-382-6322.
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