Oak Harbor couple brightens the holiday season

Oak Harbor residents set up a dazzling display of Christmas lights in their own winter wonderland.

It’s a winter wonderland on Wilson Road in Oak Harbor, where longtime residents Fred and Mary Benninghoff have set up a dazzling display of Christmas lights for what they estimate to be the 17th year in a row.

Though the long-standing tradition is certainly an enjoyable one for the couple, they said the real reason they do it is to bring joy to others in the community.

The Benninghoffs, both octogenarians, are something of a real-life Santa and Mrs. Claus in their commitment to spreading holiday cheer and maintaining the coziness of Christmas in their home.

Like Santa, Fred has to start preparing for Christmas early. His annual light display doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, Fred said he starts putting up the decorations right after Halloween, almost a full month before his official opening the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Also like Santa, Fred has a predilection for cookies. Though the couple doesn’t ask for or expect any compensation for their light show, they said that a number of friends and community members have dropped off treats over the years, and Fred certainly isn’t complaining.

“People come by and give us cookies, which is good,” he said. “I mean, they’re my friend for life.”

Perhaps the way in which the Benninghoffs most resemble the Clauses is in their love for children, and the joy they get from seeing kids’ excitement over the holidays. Mary said when families stop by to see the lights, it’s one way she and Fred get to interact with kids now that their own children are grown.

The expansive light display isn’t only meant for children, however; Mary said that people from all age groups have enjoyed the decorations, including church groups and folks from retirement homes, and that some people from the community have returned year after year to see them.

Community members were especially responsive to the light display in 2020, after nearly a year of lockdowns and isolation. Fred said he estimated around 700 cars drove through that year, which was the most he had ever seen by a wide margin.

The couple also enjoys the lights themselves. Fred said the tradition has become especially impactful to him as his vision has waned over the years. The bright Christmas lights remain easy for him to see.

“I look at a perfectly clear sky, I see 12 stars. That’s it. There are millions of them up there, and I can’t see them,” Fred said. “But these, I can see.”

The light show will be on display until Jan. 1. Almost all of the lights and decorations, the couple said, came from garage sales and thrift stores. This year’s theme is snowmen.

The Benninghoffs encourage anyone who wants to see the lights to come to their home on Wilson Road — the light display is impossible to miss. Visitors can drive right into the driveway and are welcome to get out of their cars to look around, too.

“It’s our Christmas,” Mary said.

Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times
Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times
Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times
Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times
Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times