Snow blanketed East Dale Street on Sunday as a group of neighbors crowded around the "Christmas house" to sing carols and celebrate a light display tradition going back more than three decades. Built by John Knull, a welder and machinist for the City of Colorado Springs for 34 years who died in April from lung cancer, the display became a holiday staple in the quiet residential neighborhood off Cache La Poudre Street. This will be the last year Joan Knull, John's wife, will light the display and her neighbors decided to make sure she knew how much the Christmas lights had meant to them.
"I've been coming here with my children since they were babies, every Christmas, to look at the display since it first went up and say hello to the Knulls," said Terry Finley, a 33-year neighborhood resident. "This is very emotional, to think that it's the last year we'll get to see it. I'm sure I'll cry."
Twirling Christmas trees, a snow slope with moving skiers and Santa's workshop with fully mechanized elves make up just part of the bright display that stretches across the front of Joan Knull's home and takes up the entire backyard.
Joan and John Knull began setting up the annual display in 1970. Joan Knull's father-in-law had built a Santa Claus, complete with a sleigh and reindeer, and they kept adding to it.
"I thought about Christmas all year-round, because John had a weld shop and whenever we'd have free time we would work on the display together," Joan Knull said.
When Joan Knull, 77, set up signs around her home announcing that this would be the last year she would be lighting the display, several long-time friends and neighbors wanted to express their gratitude.
"We just think that when a person does something for truly altruistic reasons, out of love and kindness, they deserve to be shown thanks," Sam Rush-Walton said. "My children and I have come for years, and it's a part of how they've grown up. We wanted to make sure that we did something to honor Joan, and John's memory."
Sunday's celebration was mostly coordinated through social media in an effort to surprise Joan Knull. When the lights went on at 5 p.m. and she came out of her house, a large crowd greeted her with a large thank-you card, hot chocolate, apple cider and lots of hugs.
"This is such a surprise," Joan Knull said, reacting to the outpouring of gratitude from her neighbors. "I am happy they enjoyed it over the years. We certainly enjoyed putting it up."
As for the display, which will come down after New Year's Eve, Joan Knull said she gave it away - free of charge - to anyone who wanted it, and it's all been spoken for. The Pioneers Museum will get a mechanical workshop and two large snowmen; a church will receive a stained window; and two neighbors who live just down the street asked for the rest, to keep John Knull's memory alive.
Leo and Belinda Weinman have lived at Dale and Institute streets for about four years and they never met John Knull, but they said the display embodies the meaning of Christmas. It's a source of comfort for the neighborhood.
"It's such a great tribute, there is such a great energy and I know that Mr. Knull is looking over all of us right now," Leo Weinman said. "It's a blessing for this neighborhood, we take care and look out for each other here."
Once the display is dismantled, Joan Knull still plans to decorate her home with lights, but nowhere near as elaborately as the display she and her husband built over 33 years.
"It was something John and I really enjoyed doing, and, as a craft, it kept us busy," Joan Knull said. "We really enjoyed people coming through every year to enjoy it, and I am happy it brought them joy."