[Metroactive Features]

[ Features Index | San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

[whitespace] Xmas Lights
Photograph by Skye Dunlap

Twinkle Wrinkle

Come hell or high energy bills, the holiday light show must go on in Willow Glen

By Lessley Anderson

LEONARD MEYERS, like his Willow Glen neighbors, is gaga for Christmas decorations. He started out small, with a few strings of lights, when he moved to Glen Avenue in Willow Glen eight years ago. Now his birch tree is hung with watermelon-size clusters of lights meant to look like ornaments in red, green and blue. Two light-studded deer appear to be drinking out of an invisible water source on Meyers' lawn. No drugstore reindeer here--Meyers' plastic-free display, paired with his gingerbread-style cottage, epitomizes the Willow Glen style of "old-fashioned" quaintness that draws crowds--busloads, even--of onlookers each Christmas.

This year, the Bay Area is in the middle of a serious energy crisis. But despite threats of rolling blackouts or frozen citrus crops, most of Willow Glen is holding fast to its tradition of picturesque lights.

For his part, Meyers would rather sacrifice what he anticipates will be an energy bill double what he usually pays this time of year.

"You don't think about the cost," says Meyers, in a beatific voice. Outside, a full van with the words Central Christian Church on its side crawls slowly down the street on a Willow Glen Christmas light tour. "It's for the joy of the people," he says.

If you live in Willow Glen, decorating your house for Christmas is tantamount to belonging. If you don't go all out, like Meyers, you are at least encouraged to buy a little Christmas tree from your block's tree coordinator, stake it into your lawn and hang it with lights.

This year, the neighbors brag, horse-drawn carriages have arrived, proving just how romantic their tree tradition is. Though residents are careful to say that those who don't decorate aren't condemned, you see few dark houses in Willow Glen--even in the middle of an electricity shortage. Few want to be party poopers who care more about conservation than Yuletide spirit.

"In Germany, where I'm from, people are much more power conscious," remarks David Michaelberg, who lives on Meredith Avenue, a few houses down from the street's tree coordinator, Mary Intorre. "But Christmas lights are pretty benign," he says, "when you compare them to air conditioning and SUVs."

Michaelberg and his family didn't buy a lawn Christmas tree from Mary Intorre because they're Jewish. But, he says, they've recently considered putting up some lights in the form of dreidels next year, to be a part of the action.

Mary and Joe Intorre, 35-year residents of Willow Glen, typify the general assumption among residents that the light displays, far from being kitschy, are genuinely lovely--even spiritual. "The lights just do something to you," says Mary Intorre.

"I actually do have fewer lights this year," says resident Susan Walton, standing in her front yard, which hosts the most impressive display of Christmas lights on the street. "This corner here is usually full of lights, and around this wall, and this little island here." To not put up lights at all, however, would be unthinkable.

"Doing the lights is a welcome full of peace and joy and happiness," waxes Walton. "It's a type of communication without speaking." Hmmm, really?

"I grew up in Berkeley, where they don't do this kind of thing," says neighborhood resident Jana Morse, rolling her eyes and surveying the identical lighted trees in her neighbors' yards. "But Chris, how would you feel if we didn't have a tree?" she calls to her husband, who's just gone inside. "Left out!" he responds.

The home at 1620 Minnesota Ave. is Willow Glen's crown jewel of Christmas décor. Each year, Tony Ornellas transforms his Victorian mansion into a blinking palace of lights--breathtaking or horrifying, depending on your sense of taste. Lights are everywhere--blanketing Ornellas' topiary animal garden, hanging from a gigantic maypole in the front of the property, and mounted on homemade stars and Christmas trees the owners welded and attached to the roof. The effect is like a traveling carnival, without the rides. A cacophony of electronic Christmas carols bleeps from hidden boxes in the bushes.

On a Wednesday evening last week a small crowd gathered to stare, delighting 52-year-old Ornellas, a retired Lockheed Martin missile engineer. Pacific Gas & Electric Company, who would not return calls for comment, have paid a few cautionary visits to Orellas' Christmas display, he says, but haven't pulled the plug.

"Look at this," Ornellas says conspiratorially. He sneaks around to the meter attached to the back of his shed, which, due to the 85,000 lights Ornellas is running, is spinning at what looks like about 45 rpm. The glass covering it is slightly fogged up. "It's going so fast it's smoking in there!" he says mischievously. "But don't tell PG&E."

[ San Jose | Metroactive Central | Archives ]

From the December 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

Foreclosures - Real Estate Investing
San Jose.com Real Estate