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A Millis family goes all out for the holidays

Traffic was heavy as cars slowly made their way into the entrance of the “Millis Wonderland.”

Jim Davis/Globe staff

Traffic was heavy as cars slowly made their way into the entrance of the “Millis Wonderland.”

Think you have an impressive light display? Take a drive on over to Causeway Street ­—Millis’s own version of the North Pole.

Tucked away on 40 acres owned by the Meehan family is a bright, glowing, musical, sprawling spectacle that attracts thousands of drive-through visitors every season.

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“They keep Christmas better than anyone I know,” Jessie Irwin, an envoy with The Salvation Army in Milford, said on a recent weeknight just before the gates opened and a steady procession of cars began creeping in.

Whatever you celebrate, traditions are an integral part of the holiday process: They forge family connections, fostering memories that get passed on for generations.

In Millis’ case, the elaborate Causeway Road display — staged by the Meehan family, fittingly called “Millis Wonderland,” and raising money for the Salvation Army — is one very distinct tradition that has evolved over the past decade.

“Every year,” Pat Sjogren of Millis said of the frequency of her visits as she sat in the passenger’s side of a slowly rolling SUV. Her twin 3-year-old granddaughters Catherine and Flynn were with her, marveling at the view. “It’s just enormous. It’s wonderful.”

And what a spectacle it is — encompassing thousands of lights, it can be seen from at least a quarter-mile away, and it is a wonderment of luminescence: strings of white encircle trees, glow along fences, trim the gables on buildings, and highlight crosses, setting the entire property in a radiant glow.

There are also life-sized nutcrackers, reindeer, elves, wreaths, a nativity scene, trolleys making constant runs around circular tracks, and enormous burly Santas who could double as Paul Bunyans in the offseason.

Two-year-old Trevor Killeen of Sherborn gets excited as he sees a giant Santa Claus .

Jim Davis/Globe staff

Two-year-old Trevor Killeen of Sherborn gets excited as he sees a giant Santa Claus .

But perhaps the biggest lure — and the one that garners the most “oohs” and “aahs” — is the series of roughly two dozen, chalet-style glass boxes with various animatronic scenes: angels, Victorian carolers, playful penguins, Santa’s workshop. (And behind all that, barely visible, are electrical wires that cover the ground like overgrown vines.)

In the center of it all sits the Meehan’s home — decked out in shimmering trim.

“This is a place where the community enjoys starting off their Christmas,” said Irwin, dressed in a red Salvation Army smock and offering a wide smile to passersby.

“It’s nothing for 12,000 to 15,000 people to go through on a Friday and Saturday night,” said Kevin Meehan, who is the proverbial Father Christmas when it comes to the display.

Some people come from Rhode Island or New Hampshire; others have staged marriage proposals amid the glow.

“It’s celebrating life and celebrating love, and doing it all with a Christmas splash,” Irwin said as she and other volunteers huddled around a chiminea offering a comforting flame.

As is often the case, it started out simply enough: About 10 years ago, Meehan, who owns Imperial Cars in Mendon, began putting up decorations with his five kids.

“The initial objective was to get us all together,” he said.

People stay in their cars as they drive through the "Millis Wonderland" on Causeway Street and look at the displays.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

People stay in their cars as they drive through the "Millis Wonderland" on Causeway Street and look at the displays.

And he can’t explain really why it grew so big, but it did — more and more each year — and then in 2004, it garnered nationwide attention when it won a contest held by the “Today” show. The interest after that was a bit overwhelming, Meehan noted, with mile-long backups that rankled some neighbors. But Meehan held a meeting with the neighborhood to talk about concerns, and now traffic is diverted and rerouted by town police if the turnout creates congestion.

Now an organized operation, it opens to the public Dec. 1 and runs four hours a night, seven days a week, until Christmas Day, with flaggers to control traffic, and a dedicated core of volunteers to keep things running. And although the look is free, visitors are urged to make a donation to the Salvation Army, which has a presence of Santa hat-wearing bell-ringers.

Friday and Saturday nights bring in 3,000 cars apiece, Meehan estimated, with many area senior centers and other institutions coming in small busloads.

Ultimately, it takes about five weeks to set up, and the layout changes every year. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of effort, a big invasion on your privacy,” acknowledged Meehan, who declined to say how high his electric bill climbs as a result.

A cross perched on a working waterfall.

Jim Davis/Globe staff

A cross perched on a working waterfall.

Still, he keeps doing it because of “the smiles you put on everybody’s faces,” he said. “It’s a way of giving back to the community. [My family has] been blessed in so many ways, we can certainly afford to do it. If everybody who could afford it took the time to do something like this, we’d all be better off, don’t you think?”

As Dave Irwin — Jessie’s husband — explained, the monthlong event is a boon to charity.

Last year, visitors donated $32,500; he expects $35,000 this year. Ultimately, it has become the biggest single-spot collection in Massachusetts, with the money it raises used to help at least 1,400 local people with food, toys, and other services this holiday season.

Beyond the community assistance, Irwin noted the sheer grandeur. “I’m taken aback by how beautiful it is,” he said. “It’s breathtaking.”

On a recent weeknight, just before 6 p.m., visitors lined up in their cars, after winding down a narrow street with modest houses beset with subtler decorations — shrubs silhouetted with white, lit-up reindeer, Christmas trees visible through front windows.

A giant Santa complete with reindeer.

Jim Davis/Globe staff

A giant Santa complete with reindeer.

Then, as 6 p.m. tolled, they moved slowly through, bumper-to-bumper — a seemingly endless procession of cars, ­SUVs, minivans, and buses.

Music emanated from speakers in the woods, and Salvation Army workers rang bells, sang carols, and called out “Merry Christmas!” and “Enjoy the lights!” to the cars rolling by in a happy holiday gridlock.

“Whoa!” was a common expression heard from half-rolled- down windows. Necks craned in cars jammed full. Tiny fingers pointed. Some kids, overcome with excitement, hung halfway out moonroofs for a better view.

Watching it all from the side, Jessie Irwin said with a smile, “it’s our favorite part of Christmas.”

For more information visit www.milliswonderland.com.

Taryn Plumb can be reached at taryn.plumb@gmail.com.
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