South Charlotte

Driving holiday cheer around Charlotte

Bill Halsey calls it "McAdenville on wheels."

It's a 1990 Honda CR-V the color of Santa's coat.

The luggage rack is adorned with a smorgasbord of Christmas décor, and from Thanksgiving Day to Christmas Eve for the last 12 years, it's been 61-year-old Halsey's pride and joy.

If you happen to spot the car cruising around south Charlotte in the next few weeks, you'll see why.

Carefully arranged on a platform bolted to the luggage rack are a Christmas tree with ornaments alongside Santa and his sled, pulled by red-nosed Rudolph and one of his kin.

The reindeers' necks are adorned with wreaths with bright red bows, and at their feet are presents and snow.

As soon as Halsey cranks the car, it lights up and upbeat Christmas tunes such as "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," ring out from the roof.

The inside the car is a sea of cords feeding into cigarette lighters, transformers and fuses.

But on the outside, it's pure Christmas fun.

"Every time I drive down the street, there are honks, waves, thumbs-up, hundreds of people a day taking pictures," said Halsey. "If I go to the mall or Wal-Mart, I come back out and there are 20 people standing around it. If I go Christmas shopping, I have to allow for an extra hour because I know every place I stop, I'll be there an extra 15 minutes. ...They go nuts when I crank up the car and it all lights up."

Carrying on the tradition of both their parents, Halsey and his wife, Marcia, always put a lot of thought into Christmas crafts and decorations for their home in Cameron Wood. (The longtime Cameron Woods residents recently moved near Quail Corners.)

But in 1999, Halsey, a tractor-trailer driver for Con-way Freight, decided his personal car needed to share in the festivities.

He started with an 18-inch Christmas tree atop the luggage rack.

Bill and Marcia's children, Brittany and Ashley, were 10 and 12 years old at the time, and Bill loved to embarrass them as he dropped them off at school.

From the beginning, public opinion was always great. As if it were an ice cream truck, children would hear the car coming down the street and run outside with their parents. Neighbors would ask to pose with it for pictures. People would leave notes on the car with kind words and best wishes.

And no matter the temperature, people always roll down their windows at stoplights to chat with him.

"They got a big kick out of it," said Marcia, 51.

Every year, Bill deconstructs the set, changing the scene and adding new trappings.

At 3 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, he gets up early to give it a test drive when no one is on the road.

He turns on the lights, cranks up the music and cruises down Interstate 485 from Pineville to Matthews and back again.

In 12 years, nothing has ever fallen off the car.

But the Christmas scene hasn't been without mishaps.

Once, his reindeer's antlers got stuck in some tree limbs. "I had to go by and do an emergency antler-ectomy," Bill said.

Another time, a few years ago, Bill was on his way to visit Ashley, who was attending UNC Asheville. In a flash of blue lights, Bill was pulled by a state trooper.

"He said 'I love your display but you're not allowed to have a red light (on the interstate)...only patrol vehicles can,'" said Marcia.

So Bill disengaged Rudolph's red bulb nose and continued on his way.

But once he exited the interstate for Charlotte on the way home, said Marcia, "he jumped out of the car and put it back on."

People often ask Bill just how he affixes the scene to his car roof.

His answer is always: "elfin magic."

Once, a woman offered to pay him for the fixture, so she could put it in her front yard. Bill kindly declined.

Though his family has always supported Bill's holiday hobby, they've never been keen on riding with it.

As the registrar at Polo Ridge Elementary in south Charlotte, Marcia says her coworkers are always begging her to drive Bill's car to work.

"He is much more outgoing than I am," she said. "I'm happy to support him, (but) I tend to be more introverted. I don't like people looking at me."

"She will shop for it; she'll get the ideas for it, but she won't be seen in it," Bill said.

It wasn't until Black Friday this year that Brittany, now 22, decided to brave the mobs in the mall - and around the car - with her dad.

Marcia said when the two returned, there were only smiles.

For an extrovert like Bill, the Santa mobile is a great way to spread holiday cheer that, with a dismal economy and high unemployment, is often in short supply.

Last year, Bill was parked at the mall when a man stopped him and said seeing the car made his day.

That's what it's for, Bill replied.

The man went on to tell Bill he was laid off a year and a half ago, which forced his wife to work full time and extra hours. Depressed, the man said he hadn't even been able to put $100 together to buy his wife a gift she really wanted.

As the man's wife walked up to the car and complimented Bill on the décor, Bill pulled the husband aside and reached in his wallet.

Handing him $200, Bill told the man to buy his wife that present.

The man looked at the cash, stunned.

After a pause, he pushed the extra $100 bill back into Bill's hand.

Bill insisted.

"I said 'You've got to take her to dinner - somewhere nice for Christmas,'" said Bill. "He was in tears."

Since 1999, Bill estimates he's spent about 30 hours and nearly $500 on his mobile Christmas display.

"It's worth every penny of it," said Bill. "Christmas is about the birth of Jesus. Nobody can take that away. But...Christmas is (also) about giving to others and paying it forward. People need to open up their hearts."