Big Daddy’s Farm sits on a quiet Johnston County road miles from the nearest town, but on cold nights in December, cars from as far away as Greenville, Durham and even Virginia crowd into a makeshift parking lot in a field.
The family-owned farm — about 35 miles east of Raleigh and six miles from the small town of Middlesex — hosts more than 4,000 visitors for its “Christmas Lights on the Farm” event. It’s far from the only elaborate holiday light display in the area, but people come here for the experience just as much as the illumination.
While many light shows, particularly in urban areas, are drive-through affairs where visitors never get out of their cars, the only way to see the show at Big Daddy’s Farm is to hop on a hayride through fields of what co-owner Jason Champion estimates include more than a million light bulbs.
The tractor-pulled ride also passes through facades that resemble a small town from more than a century ago, all adorned with colorful lights. Santa perches atop an illuminated antique fire truck. After the ride, visitors stick around for music and dance performances, snacks and s’mores around a campfire, and photos with Santa.
Big Daddy’s is one of many farms across the state growing a Clark Griswold-esque crop of Christmas lights to bring in crowds and help keep their land amid development pressures.
“This is to help pay the taxes on the land and keep it going, so we don’t have to sell to the people who build all these subdivisions,” Champion says. New homes are increasingly dotting the landscape even in this rural part of Johnston, and the Champions are determined to hang onto their 40-plus acres.
Family and friends brainstorm new ideas for the light show each year, and many of them pitch in starting in September to assemble and install all the lights. Champion says he can’t just unplug the lights and leave them up year-round because “we’ve got some mean squirrels out there.”
“It takes an army to put the Christmas show up,” he adds.
The light display initially started in Champion’s front yard and soon grew to his mom’s yard next door and other neighbors. Eventually, they decided to go big and buy up displays from defunct Christmas shows in the area; Christmas Lights on the Farm has been a full-fledged event for about five years now, with visitors paying $8 each to attend.
The Champions have hosted a haunted attraction on the property called Darkside Haunted Estates for even longer. Some of the structures are used for both, but “you wouldn’t ever know it was a scary place” once the holiday decorations go up, Champion said.