IT'S THE WEEKEND: Let there be lights for Christmas

THE countdown to Christmas has begun, and with excitement building many people across Gwent have already started pulling out the old decorations to provide a hint of sparkle this festive season.

But not quite like these Christmas crackers.

Phillip and Merrilyn Cullen, from Cwmbran, have been delighting adults and children alike with their display for the past twenty years.

With more than 1,000 lights covering every available inch of their Fairwater home, it is easy to see why.

The couple, who live on Jule Road, even have two giant inflatable Santas on their roof - to go along with a canopy of decorations which could probably be used to help navigate a route from Lapland to South Wales by the man himself.

They switch the lights on between 5pm and 9pm each night for an entire month, from December 1 – it costs them hundreds just for the electricity.

Mr Cullen, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Father Christmas, with a big white beard of his own, said he had no idea how much money he had spent on decorations over the years.

“It doesn’t really matter because the look of excitement and enjoyment on the faces of the children who come to see us with their parents is priceless,” said the 70-year-old.

People from as far away as Australia and Canada visiting the area have even come to see what the fuss is about over the years.

But this will be the last year that Mr and Mrs Cullen, who have four children, 16 grandchildren and no less than 18 great-grandchildren, will be decorating their home.

Mr Cullen said arthritis had kicked in and he could no longer scale a ladder to put up the extravagant display like he once could.

Indeed, putting it up is no mean feat.

He said he had started on Bonfire Night this year, and worked steadily on it for over a month afterwards.

An interwoven system of sockets and cable keeps the whole thing alight, and the electrical complexity of it on its own is truly something to be marvelled at.

Mr Cullen estimated he had around 80 sockets inside his self-built conservatory.

He said: “It’s become something of a tradition for us, and for Cwmbran I suppose. We have met so many people by doing this. We had one guy come up the other week who must have been around 35. He said he could remember the lights being up when he was a youngster.”

Teenagers flock to the house nightly where Mr Cullen often dresses up as Santa and hands out sweets such as candy canes. So do parents with small children.

Kirsty Edmunds took her sons Hayden and Dylan. Speaking outside the house she said the children “loved it”.

“I brought them last year, and Dylan, who is six, has barely stopped asking when he could come back. He just calls it the ‘lights house’.”

Tiffany Watkins called it “fantastic”.

“It brightens up the whole town,” she said.

Ellie Pritchard, 12, said she visited the house every year.

“They are the best decorations I have ever seen,” she said.

Mrs Cullen said the response from the community since they announced this would be their last year had blown her away.

“A little girl came with her mother the other day and said she wanted to give us a present,” she said. “She pulled out some shortbread, a bottle of wine and a card. It said ‘every year we look forward to seeing your lights. Thank you for always spreading the Christmas cheer’. I almost cried.”

She said this was the best time of year.

“We just love seeing the look on people’s faces,” she added.

“Sometimes the parents can be even more excited than the kids.”

Prolific Newport fundraiser Sheila Gill is another who has turned her home into nothing short of full-blown Winter Wonderland.

Spread across an acre site in the centre of Newport, she has transformed the house off Stow Hill, and its grounds, charging visitors £1 in aid of charities, Casey’s Cause and the Full Circle Foundation.

She said Christmas had always been a time for celebration growing up at her home in Ireland, and that is a tradition she has since continued over the last 33 years at The Irish Club in Newport, where she is the landlady.

Now she is extending the tradition to her home.

“We did it last year and it was a huge success so we are doing it again, only bigger and better,” said the 73-year-old. “I love Christmas, I always have. Even if we didn’t have a lot growing up we always decorated the house, with balloons and anything else we can find. We have been lucky to find some beautiful decorations and just wanted to share that.”

Christmas carols welcome visitors down a long and well-lit driveway at Ms Gill’s home, next to Handpost Pharmacy, before you even reach the imposing house which has dancing reindeer outside, an inflatable Christmas Winnie the Pooh, jubilant snowmen, and flashing stars galore.

There are two grottos at the back of the house, next to the swimming pool.

One of them is dedicated to Sheila’s beloved dog Rocky. The other belongs to Sheila’s very own resident Santa Claus, volunteer William Lewis.

Sixty-one year-old Mr Lewis dedicates four hours of his time every night to meet and greet people who pay the entry free.

The Pill resident who was formally on the committee for Mencap also runs the entire operation, using three massive generators.

He said there was about a mile of cable.

“You won’t find anything else like this in Wales,” he said.

“I have worked with Sheila for years and admire what she has done for charity so much, I would do anything to help.

“I really enjoy it too. I even give up going to watch Newport County for this, and I never miss their games.

“But this is worth it, for the children and for charity.”

Inside Mr Lewis’ grotto are numerous extravagant decorations which would not look out of place in Harrods. Several of them even have simulated snow.

They are actually from The Range department store in Newport, where Ms Gill said she had spent an astonishing £700 on one occasion. All of the lights were purchased from BUYology for a further £300.

There are further surprises for young children in the form of biscuits, lollies and pop.

Linda Wilson took her six-year-old granddaughter along.

She said: “The front of the house is just amazing. You just don’t expect.”

Ms Gill will keep the grounds open until Christmas Eve.

Caerleon resident Mel Rendell is another who has created something a little bit special in his home.

He has constructed an eight-foot-long miniature Dickensian Christmas village.

It includes a twirling Christmas Tree, an ice skating ring, a mock-wedding scene, and all the features you would expect to find, from a library which changes colour under lights, to a hotel, town hall, theatre, and even a school.

The 70-year-old said he had taken it up as a hobby after retiring from Pirelli, in Newport, and “fell in love with it”.

“It symbolises what Christmas means to me in a way,” he said, speaking at his home on Caerleon Road.

Mr Rendell said he had even ordered some parts for the village from as far away as Japan.

His wife, Mo, said she would find herself staring at the beautiful assembly for minutes at a time, searching for figurines like the village policeman, a horse-drawn carriage, or a mother pushing her pram because her husband moves them about.

“It’s about enjoyment out of the simple things,” she added.

But according to recent research not everyone is sold on the Christmas lights phenomena.

A recent survey that while 47 per cent of Britons love it, almost a third have a more bah humbug approach to lighting up the festive season.

It said 14 per cent think they are a waste of money, with a further 11 per cent actually wishing their neighbours wouldn’t decorate the outside of their homes.

But despite mixed views the majority of the nation is getting into the festive spirit with 57 per cent saying they are looking forward to spending time with family and friends.

Andrew Pearce, retail director for Yorkshire Bank, said: “Research has shown that people either love or loathe outdoor Christmas lights. Some view them as extravagant and an unnecessary waste of money and electricity whilst others enjoy the Christmas atmosphere they bring to the community.

“But whatever decorations you opt for this year, it’s still possible to have fun this festive season without blowing the budget.”

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