Whatcom Magazine

Bright lights, small cities: These Whatcom County families decorate for the holidays in a big way

December in the Northwest is dark and rainy affair, a dismal time of year our ancestors endured with festivals, eating and drinking, and with candlelighting.

The need for cheer hasn’t changed, and neither has the joy of festivals and of eating and drinking, but plug-in lights have long since replaced candles. These four Whatcom County couples go beyond the norm when it comes to bringing bright joy to their families, neighborhoods and to people who drive past their homes to admire their holiday displays.

Carrying on tradition

The Costello family on McKenzie Avenue in Fairhaven comes by their holiday love through family tradition. Rob Costello’s father, Tripo Costello, played Santa Claus on the beloved Santa Ship that braved December’s winter storms to deliver toys, treats and clothing to isolated Gulf Island residents.

The ship has continued its annual journey since 1947, crewed now not just by a volunteer Santa and his elves, but also by pirates, clowns and members of Lions Club International. The visit is a highlight of the season for many island children who have little else to look forward to. Rob Costello, who has made several of the trips, recalls a child asking for just one tennis shoe because he had lost the other one.

Rob and his wife, Linda Costello, continue to mark the holidays with decorations and celebrations for the generations that have followed. Their two daughters enjoyed decorating when they were young, followed by the four grandchildren who help create the “magic room” in the vaulted-ceiling dining room they added to their 112-year-old home 27 years ago. The room sports an enormous Christmas tree that is topped with a 4-foot angel and aglow with more than 1,500 lights.

“We transform the entire room,” Rob says. “We hang 80 huge balls with translucent string from the ceiling, and add hundreds of Santas and collectibles to the shelves around the room. Our eldest grandson would just sit in wonder of it.”

The Costellos are “big” on Santas that they search for in antique shops, Christmas stores and anywhere they frequent while traveling. They have porcelain Santas and moveable ones. Their oldest one is a 1940 tin Santa Claus with fabric clothing.

“He sits on a drum and though the drum sits still, Santa moves, blowing bubbles from a cup he holds,” Rob says. “He’ll blow 100 at a time and it will fill the air around him.”

Linda decorates one of two smaller trees herself, a Victorian-themed tree by the front entrance.

Although their first Christmas tree was in an apartment, they took the time to flock it. Now it takes them two to three weeks to install their decorations inside and out, starting the day after Thanksgiving.

“My family wasn’t much into Christmas when I was growing up,” Linda says, “so I made it a priority to give our kids the experience of the fun of the holidays. I think they can enjoy it at any age.”

Lighting up Lynden

The glowing tree on Maberry Drive had become such a holiday icon that for the two years Leslie and Richard Driediger didn’t light it up, people would come by to ask why.

“People were disappointed,” Leslie recalls. “And I realized I was sad, too.”

Inspired by his brother, who created large holiday-lighting fixtures for places like malls, Richard learned the technique of wrapping light strands around tree branches for the best effect. It also doesn’t hurt that he is an electrician by trade.

The Driedigers bought their Lynden home in 2003. The front of the house featured a 25-foot maple, and Richard began putting lights on the tree every November, taking them down New Year’s Day, and putting up more lights the following year.

“It’s not a busy street,” Richard says. “People started driving real slow and even backing up to see our tree. Our front yard is mostly lawn with this really big tree just covered in lights. The street is a little curvy and you come around the corner and there it is.”

Eventually, decorating the tree became such a big job, usually on “cold, dark nights after work,” that Richard took a two-year break.

“That’s when we knew the tree had become meaningful to the neighbors,” Leslie says. “We even had one family say that relatives celebrated Christmas at their house just to see the tree.”

Now, with more than 7,300 lights on 146 strings wrapped around the maple, Richard has given up removing the lights every year. The process of installing them took seven to nine hours, even with 12-year-old daughter Sophie helping.

With so many lights, it’s important for safety’s sake that Richard is an electrician.

“It helps to be able to calculate wire size,” he says. “I had to use industrial cabling that connects right into the panel. We put everything on a timer so it would go on and dusk and off when we wanted it to.”

The Driedigers decorate the inside of their home moderately, with an artificial tree and Sophie’s nutcracker collection.

People who enjoy seeing their maple should know that the family might move next year.

“Whoever buys the house will have the tree ready to go,” Richard says. “The cord is just hanging there, waiting for Christmas.”

Visible from space?

Erie Street residents Tony and Renae Blore of Bellingham say their collection of holiday yard lights began innocently enough.

“It started with six strands of lights from Grandpa in 1983,” Renae says. “We put them up the eaves and garage door. Then the next year we got about six more from Tony’s Uncle Clark. Then soon we had C9’s all around the eaves, front window and garage doors.”

For the uninitiated, C9’s are the really large Christmas lights; the kind everyone put up in the 1960s before tiny bulbs and rope lights became popular. They draw more electricity, but the decorative impact cannot be understated.

“The third year, more relatives gave us their Christmas decorations,” Renae says. “It was all over. We did it big-time after that.”

But it took commitment, and power.

“C9’s draw a lot of energy,” Tony says. “We’d switch them on and we couldn’t run the dishwasher. There wasn’t enough power.”

So in 1995 they converted most of their appliances to gas and installed 24 outside plugs, each with a timer so the lights didn’t come on all at once.

With power to spare, they bought commercial light sculptures, and neighbors took notice.

“Soon it seemed everyone on the block was doing it,” says Renae, adding that when an elderly neighbor was no longer able to set up his lights, she and Tony stepped in to do it for him.

Tony grew up in a home where the Christmas season was fun and “a big deal.” His passion for it grew on Renae, whose family didn’t do as much. Their partnership in creating a spectacular display is strong, as is the need for organization to make it work.

Every light bulb has a home, and a map shows their storage locations. After New Year’s Day, the bulbs are taken down one at a time, dried, repaired, and stored in the garage. Then they hit the after-Christmas sales to stock up for the next season.

Although the yard is a focal point, the inside of the house isn’t neglected, with decorations filling every corner. The job of decorating begins in October.

“The whole upstairs attic and the garage are decoration storage spaces,” Tony says. “We have everything. There is a full-size leg lamp (as in the movie ‘A Christmas Story’) in the front window, Santa and reindeer on one fence, on another fence there is a drummer boy. In the front is a Santa climbing up and down a ladder. The chimney has snowflakes. Oh, and there is a ‘Festivus’ pole in the yard. It gets a lot of attention.”

Catastrophe struck in 2007 when a windstorm broke a spruce, sending the top into their beloved cherry tree, splitting it.

“We had been wrapping 8,000 to 9,000 lights around that cherry tree,” Renae recalls. “It was such a focal point for the yard. We nursed it along for six years trying to keep it alive, but couldn’t. I cried.”

These days, with 35,000 to 45,000 lights glittering in their front yard and nearly the entire street lit up, the Blores enjoy a nearly non-stop parade of cars from Thanksgiving to New Year’s. Members of senior centers come by in buses, and limos slow down for a look. Carolers come by. Some people wonder if the display can be seen from space.

“People leave us notes and stop to say how much they appreciate it,” Renae says. “I figure with holiday decor, you either need to go with whimsical or religious. We go for whimsy. We just love the joy it brings to everyone else.”

For family and friends

After 48 years together, Jerry and Alice Eis finish each other’s sentences, and share a passion for Christmas. Both came from families where decorating a home for the holidays was an anticipated event, and that joy continues.

They met while Jerry served in the Navy, deploying to Vietnam just two weeks after marrying Alice. They moved around during his military career, but home was definitely Bellingham.

Alice was raised on the Southside, with generations of her family settled here. In addition to two children, “we always had other kids around,” she says. “Anyone who needed a home was welcome here. They would show up and we took them in.”

That generosity is evident at their Ontario Street home, especially during the holidays, when they invite neighbors to see their decorations and Christmas trees, both inside and out.

“We ask that anyone who comes over brings a donation for the food bank, rather than bringing goodies for us,” Jerry says.

“We definitely don’t need more treats,” Alice adds. “We have 15 Christmas cookie jars and each year I make different cookies for every jar. The jars are set out all over the dining room. Everyone has their favorites and goes looking for the jar that holds them.”

Their home is, they say, a “clutter of Christmas” from Thanksgiving to mid-January, with the kids helping to pull things out of the attic after Thanksgiving dinner. They decorate for other holidays, but Christmas is their favorite, and it them takes nine days to finish.

“We have at least seven trees around the house,” Alice says.

“Ten,” interjects Jerry, “including the little ‘upside down’ tree out on the back porch.”

“It has mittens, scarves and outdoor clothing on it,” Alice says. “We have my childhood sled out there.”

“We put trees in different rooms, or sometimes I’ll match them in one room so it looks like you’re looking in the mirror,” she continues. “I draw a map in my notebook each year so I remember the themes I chose for each room.”

Themes include her collections of lighthouses, bears, Santa Claus, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, the Wizard of Oz, snowmen, and “old-fashioned” decorations. Everything is on timers, so animation and lights happen at different times.

Alice lines up five Santas, ranging in height from 3 feet to 5 feet. The tallest one dances. A dancing snowman rounds out the group.

“We had at one time 150 musical toys,” Jerry says. “We have a few less now.”

“We do go through two, big packages of the Costco battery packs every year,” Alice adds.

“It’s getting to be too much trouble to do as many outside lights; I don’t go on the roof anymore, but I do the eaves,” Jerry says. “We had one tree we put 5,000 lights on. I’ve cut it down now to just 1,800.”

Other outdoor decorations include deer, candy canes, and a boot, with the arrangement changing every year. They play music for a couple of hours outside for atmosphere. People go out of their way to drive by the house.

Dearest to Alice is annually decorating the graves of family members for the holidays. Bayview Cemetery, alone, has 23 graves.

“An all-day project”, she says. “We also go to Woodlawn, where my grandfather is, and Greenacres, where there are seven more. I have artificial flowers and mailbox wreathes that drape over headstones.”

“We’ve done it for generations,” Alice says. “I think they can see it from heaven. Family is the most important thing.”

“Seeing all of our friends and family, and keeping Alice happy. That’s the most important,” Jerry adds.