Christmas can't come without Kirkland's 'North Star'
By MATT PHELPS
Kirkland Reporter Regional Assistant Editor
December 22, 2010 · Updated 5:03 PM
Every year, Jerry Shipman thinks he “has had it” with putting up the Christmas lights on his house.
The cold wind and rain can make anyone take a year off. But when the 72-year-old craftsman waits too long, he gets visitors. The first time he procrastinated was in 1993.
“The doorbell rang and an 11-year-old child says to me ‘Mr. Shipman, Christmas can’t come without the blue lights,’” he recalled. “I don’t know how many times it has happened ... It makes us feel good. We don’t even see the lights anymore.”
The “house with the blue lights” - 30,000 to be exact - is located at 7846 122nd Ave. N.E. across the street from Lake Washington High School, but many have seen the home as Kirkland’s “North Star.”
For 35 years Jerry has put up the blue and green lights to represent the cold, a large star and some angels on the roof, while his wife of 45 years, Edie, sets up the white figures in a manger on the lawn, all to replicate the Christmas Nativity. And just like the story says, visitors have come from near and far just to behold the site.
“Some people come every year to take their family picture,” said Jerry, who has seen generations of family members over the years. “Some come up and pray. Evidently it is touching hearts ... Times are getting harder and harder and I think the lights offer a break. I think it reminds people what the season is about.”
The house has been a place of warmth and comfort to the community.
“One year this guy went into a ditch and had nowhere to go. He said he knew that if he followed the star he would find some help,” said Jerry, who let the man use his phone and get warm. “The cops stop and do their bulletins out here and we have had people come and pray for hours.”
Other visitors have included kids from Holy Family Church, who come down to sing Christmas carols at the house.
The lights are so well known that the Shipmans have received visitors at other times of the year. Jerry recalled one time that some kids were walking home from school in the snow and knew they could not make it. They stopped at the house because it was known to them by the lights.
“It is nice that people feel comfortable coming to us for help,” said Jerry, who has received numerous anonymous gifts at the door. “It is just a nice feeling.”
The Shipmans put the display together with money they inherited from Edie’s mother. But the initial idea was not without controversy.
“We went shopping and we got into a huge argument,” said Edie, who has been teaching special education for 49 years in Seattle. Jerry wanted a multi-colored manger; Edie wanted white. “It was a heated discussion.”
Jerry said it was unusual: “She is my best friend and in all these years we never get into fights.”
Edie won out and Jerry admits the white compliments his blue lights perfectly. De Young’s Farm and Garden in Woodinville donates the straw that the Shipmans use each year for the manger scene.
The couple has only experienced vandalism once during the 35 years.
“We had the Frosty and baby Jesus stolen just a few days before Christmas,” said Jerry, who called police but told them not to come since it was already gone.
In haste, the Shipmans went to a costume store to try and find a new one. The store had just one left in its own display but the owner let Jerry have the baby Jesus. Later that day a Kirkland Police officer drove up to the house.
“He just said ‘get in your car and follow me’ and he led me to Redmond where we found it in a yard full of items,” said Jerry. “We got it back in the manger just before two tour buses drove by ... The officers in town are pretty cool.”
And the baby Jesus in the display has some company now, as the couple’s cat Parker sleeps in the manger during the holidays, watching over the figure.
But the Shipman’s warmth is not confined to the community. When his mother-in-law died, Jerry made a promise to take care of Edie’s younger sister Janny, who has Down Syndrome and just celebrated her 64th birthday.
“Her and my cat follow me everywhere,” including to work said Jerry, who also has two grown boys with Edie. “Janny is amazing.”
Jerry said that the transition was not easy but has been worth it. Janny even helps with the display by setting up the crib in the manger.
Jerry has devised a system of eight 20-amp switches for the 30,000 lights. The largest tree in the set up has 5,000 lights alone. A small white church can also be seen in the back of the display and two angels watch over from the roof. The Shipmans also have speakers near the front door that play Christmas music that can be heard from the sidewalk. In the backyard, the couple’s barn also has a display with lights that can be seen from the road. A Santa Claus, three Christmas trees and a very large stocking full of stuffed animals can be seen on the balcony.
Altogether, the displays cost the Shipmans $500-600 a month in electricity. But some have even offered to help with that.
“A couple years ago the power was jumping severely,” said Edie. “A man handed Jerry $50 and said ‘put it towards the lights.’”
It happened again last year with a woman who gave the couple $20. Jerry tried to refuse, but the woman insisted.
“A few minutes later a homeless man comes to the door needing money so I gave it to him,” laughed Jerry. “But that is what it is all about.”
The display also leads to a lot of traffic as nearly every car that passes by slows down or stops for a minute or two to take in the brilliant scene. The Shipmans say that they appreciate their neighbors help over the years.
“The neighbors help by not parking their cars out front and they have been just wonderful,” said Edie.
To make it easier to put up the lights, Jerry tries to keep his trees groomed during the year but he has help from his neighbor to the north.
“Tony trims the trees when I don’t get to it,” said Jerry.
The Shipmans have helped their neighbors decorate their homes, including purchasing some lights for them. Jerry helped Tony construct a train for his front yard, which he now puts out each year.
“When we procrastinate putting them up we tell people we are going green this year,” Jerry laughs.
The Shipmans guard the window each night around 10 or 11 p.m. when they turn the lights off: “We have to make sure no one is sitting out there.”
The lights go on in November and stay on through Jan. 6 on Epiphany or Little Christmas.
“That is when I put out a sign that says gone to Egypt,” laughed Edie.Contact Kirkland Reporter Regional Assistant Editor Matt Phelps at firstname.lastname@example.org or 425-822-9166 ext. 5052.