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Art Ambassadors of the Month - December 2017

Written By Diane Rhodes
Arts Council Menifee

Christmas spirit fills the hearts and home of Christopher and Mary Carnes each December but selfless acts of kindness and giving are evident all year long. Because of their extensive community volunteerism, Arts Council Menifee has honored the couple as its December Ambassadors/Artists of the Month.

The Carnes were married in Riverside 42 years ago and lived in The Netherlands for about five years and Eagle Rock, CA for more than a decade before moving to Menifee in 1994.

“Every Christmas for the past 25 years we open our home to everyone who shows up,” Mary Carnes said. “It’s not about the decorations both inside and out; it’s about giving to the community we live in and helping to raise spirits.”

Growing up, Mary’s mom always had a village under their Christmas tree made from cardboard lighted houses and plastic deer and pine cones. After Mary and Chris got married, the tradition continued under their tree.

“We got a train set that first Christmas,” Chris Carnes said. “Each year we collected a few more things until we couldn’t find a tree big enough for the village. We started making platforms in the living and dining rooms for our village displays.”

In 1991, with about 150 houses, the couple entered a nationwide display contest sponsored by Department 56, manufacturer of holiday collectibles and known for its lit Christmas village collections.

“We won the grand prize which was a very rare house,” Chris Carnes recalled. “We lived in Eagle Rock at the time and the Los Angeles Times came over and wrote a story about us that was published on Christmas Eve 1991.”

The following Saturday the couple hosted a party for family, friends and strangers who had read the article and started showing up to see the displays.

“At one point, we had a house full of people we never met,” Chris Carnes said. “We thought that was a perfect way to celebrate the joy of giving and sharing and we continued opening our house every year.”

About 100 visitors came by the first year and for the following four years, the Carnes family continued to offer an open house the Saturday after Christmas.

The displays grew larger each year and once the couple moved to Menifee they set up villages in their garage to encourage new neighbors to stop in for a closer look. This snowballed into “MaryChrisMess.”

“Our names are Mary and Chris and we have two boys. When they were growing up they were a mess, as most kids are. Now our sons are 29 and 26 but the name has stayed with us,” Chris Carnes explained.

Each village display is themed and the couple does not have space to display all of the 1,000-plus houses they have in their collection.

“Each year we try to put up different villages so our guests don’t see the same thing every year,” Chris Carnes said. “We have displays in every room on the ground floor of our home.”

Despite not showing off their entire collection each year, the Carnes still spend about three months getting their house holiday ready, inside and out.

In 2015, the city of Menifee created the “Carnes Award” honoring the best in Menifee’s Christmas tradition. Each year another family who goes above and beyond in spreading the spirit of the holidays receives the award.

Last month, the couple was presented with the “Service Before Self” award from the Rotary Club in honor of the couple’s continuous acts of volunteerism and significant contributions to the city. Last December, California Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez presented them with a “Power to the People Award” to recognize those who make a difference in the community.

Mary recently retired from American Forces Radio and Television Service after 37 years. This federal government entity has broadcast to U.S. troops around the world for the past 75 years so they can stay connected to their homeland.

Chris has been a full-time math teacher at Rancho Viejo Middle School in Hemet for five years. Prior to that, he was a substitute teacher for all schools in the Menifee and Murrieta school districts.

Chris became president of Arts Council Menifee in January and will serve until the end of 2018.

“We have always been involved in the arts,” Chris Carnes said. “Both our boys play musical instruments. We feel arts is just as important in schools as English, math and science.”

The Carnes enjoy the annual Menifee’s Got Talent event that showcases all the local talent and they attend as many ACM events as possible throughout the year.

“People who are also very involved in the community are more likely to get our help with their projects,” Chris Carnes said. “We try to pay it forward as much as we can. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be kind to one another.”

In recent years, the couple added a collection of non-perishable items for the Menifee Valley Community Cupboard to their Christmas festivities.

“The donations become part of our decorations as we display them under our trees,” Mary Carnes said. “We collect an average of 6,000 pounds a year.”

The couple estimates that more than 19,000 people walked through their house last year. They will open their Menifee home, at 30035 Calle Pompeii, from 6 to 9 p.m. every night from Dec. 2 through Dec. 30. On Mondays, they will open at 5 p.m. for people with disabilities. Suggested admission is a non-perishable item for the community cupboard.

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