Keepers of Tradition

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This story was originally published in the Dec/Jan 2012 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.

By day, Seleste Womble, Karen Ford, Lisa Miller, John Ferrell and many others work for Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB), but by night, they are artists, seamstresses, painters, and Santa’s elves. These are the people who bring holiday cheer to the corner of MLK and Market in the annual holiday window display.

“It gives us all an opportunity to show things that we can do outside of work using the talents that we have,” says Womble, who is the officer coordinator for EPB’s legal services division.

EPB has been decorating windows for the holidays for around 70 years, and each holiday season, workers put in an estimated 1,200 hours outside of their regular work schedules constructing the window displays.

“Its hard work, and we all have our regular jobs during the days, so at night and on weekends we become the elves. You do it because you enjoy it,” says Miller, an event specialist at EPB who also organizes the displays every year. “We’re not just customer service reps, we’re not just linemen, we go far beyond what people typically think of our job duties.”

“We don’t re-use themes,” says Miller, “Every year it’s a new concept. We start brainstorming in August, and when we start actually building it’s a five-to-six week process of building, constructing, and crafting. You name it, we’re doing it.”

Workers draw from a selection of characters stored at EPB to create animated displays Chattanoogans will enjoy.

Workers draw from a selection of characters stored at EPB to create animated displays Chattanoogans will enjoy.

In the past, themes have included the beach, toy land, regional themes, and even a special military theme in 2008.

“When we did the military theme, we had Christmas at different places. We had a tent, and Santa was bringing gifts to elves dressed in various service uniforms, and it was like Christmas overseas,” says Ford, senior secretary in EPB’s marketing division whose son was stationed in Iraq that year, “it was very special for me.”

While there are no official tallies of how many people view the windows each year, the numbers are estimated in the thousands. “I came out one night last year and I counted over 250 people, and I just stopped counting,” says Womble.

The display opens every year on the day before Thanksgiving. Various local media cover the event, and one year, Home and Garden Television did a holiday display special that featured EPB’s windows.

“Most people don’t realize that the animated objects run constantly from Thanksgiving through the holidays, so we have people going in to keep them moving and repair them,” says Ferrell, construction foreman in EPB’s construction division. When something is not working properly, somebody is called to figure out what is wrong and how they can fix it. “It was a huge thing 50 years ago to do window displays,” says Ferrell. Now, EPB is one of the only companies in the downtown area to do a display like this. Years ago, local department stores like Miller’s and loveman’s decorated their windows, but both stores have since been acquired by other companies and moved. EPB was left with a big opportunity to bring holiday cheer to passersby downtown. Not only are the displays a traditional part of downtown Chattanooga culture, they are a traditional for families.

“It’s a huge thing for a lot of families once they get done with their Thanksgiving dinner, to come see the windows.” says Miller. Children and adults alike enjoy the holiday displays each year. Members of the community even recognize workers when they begin the process for the displays.

manwoman“Even when i was shopping for fabric for the displays, I still had my EPB badge on, and the cashier at the craft store said, ‘Oh, it’s that time again!” says Womble, who moonlights as a seamstress for the displays, “They remember.”

While EPB puts the displays up for the community, they also use the group effort as a networking and team-building opportunity within the company.

“A customer service rep might never meet a lineman,” says Miller, “but if they come down and work on the windows, they get to work with each other and network. It’s a big deal, it’s like a family affair.

As the holiday workers come together, each of them gets to exercise a personal talent they have that they normally don’t use during the regular work day. Sometimes, even some retired workers return to help with the displays.

“Everybody who works on this project is an artist, and they get to showcase that in the displays,” Miller says. “You can use your imagination, and find that whimsical part in you.”

“There are over 70 employees that work on these windows every year. Without them, this wouldn’t be a heartfelt project. We take it seriously, we take it as a gift. I’m very passionate about it,” says Miller.

Every element in the holiday window displays is created with enthusiasm, and the workers encourage viewers to pay careful attention to all the components that go into the project. “Slowly, look at the windows,” says Ford. “Look for the details.”

Visit www.epb.net for more information. 

Story by Katie Freeland
Photography courtesy of EPB and by Katie Freeland

 

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