Each holiday season, Kingston puts on an impromptu display of Christmas cheer. On side streets and avenues, colored strings of lights, blinking icicles, gigantic illuminated messages such as “Merry Christmas,” “Peace” and “Joy,” brightly lit larger-than-life blow-up Santas and snowmen, sparkling white-outlined wire reindeer, glowing wreathes, five-pointed stars, Christmas trees, candy canes and red bows, spot-lit crèches and laser projections of falling snowflakes transform the closely spaced houses into festive winter-land fantasias.
Entire streets get into the act, of which perhaps the most famous is Santa Claus Lane (check out the street signs, pushed onto lawns by “bunches of elves from the DPW,” as homeowner George Campbell describes it), a.k.a. Derrenbacher Street, which runs uphill from Foxhall Avenue (and is anchored by cool new restaurant The Beverly) in the heart of Midtown near the railroad tracks.
Some two dozen houses on the long single block get in the act. The instigator and impetus is Number 41, resplendent with luminous green wreathes, gaily tied blows outlined in white lights, and a pantheon of brightly lit Santas, snowmen, toy soldiers and the like peopling the snow-covered lawn and peering from the porch. The words “Merry Christmas,” “Toyland,” and “Joy” are plastered in giant lit letters across the porch and over the yard. “Happy Holidays” is suspended over the driveway (it’s positioned on a temporary beam), which connects the house to the equally lit-up one next door, and is topped by a green, white and red Santa in his sleigh shouting “Ho Ho Ho.”
Perched on the top of the single dormer window on the roof of the 1920s-era four-square house is a white cross, singular and isolated against the dark in stark contrast to the cacophony of lights below. “It’s one of my favorites,” said homeowner George Campbell. “The true meaning of Christmas is right there.”
Campbell, who’s been decorating the house ever since he moved in 22 years ago, confesses he has OCD, or Obsessive Christmas Disorder. “I started out with six strands of lights and one or two plastic figures. Every year it got bigger and bigger. As time went on I just added to it by ordering stuff online and having people give me stuff.” He added that “bigger is brighter,” especially since “we have postage stamps for front yards.”
Campbell said he initially was inspired by “Roger in West Park” — owner of the property with the brilliantly lit Christmas display that takes up an entire hillside on the west side of Route 9W. Another inspiration is Ryan Simon’s house, at the top of Gage Street, a few blocks away, which is outlined on three sides in lights, including an impossibly crowded menagerie of figures on every spot of yard and a Christmas sound track to boot.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood have porches, whose railings, columns and rooflines play key roles in the decorative scheme and whose interior space serves as a stage for a Christmas tableaux of life-size holiday characters. Campbell said his display draws from specific references, such as The Christmas Story (“look into the living room window and you’ll see a replica of the ‘leg of lamp’”) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (“there’s a set of misfit toys, including the elephant with polka dots and Herbie [the elf] who wants to be a dentist.”)
Throughout the year, Campbell acquires items from “yard sales and flea markets and people who don’t want to decorate. If I can fix it and store it, I’ll buy it.” The current display consists of “about the half of the stuff I have,” which he keeps in a storage unit in Uptown. “When I first started doing this, I would fit everything in the attic, but now I get a box truck and bring it over at once.” Campbell starts working on the display in the beginning of November; the task takes about 80 hours. Thanksgiving night, the lights go on and remain on every night until Jan. 2.
Campbell, who is a maintenance worker for Duncan and Duncan Associates and lives with his wife, Theresa, said the lights “probably add $500 to my electric bill.” He is gradually switching over to LED bulbs, which are “brighter and use less energy” and now comprise about 50 percent of his display. His son George lives next door — in the house linked by the “Happy Holidays” sign — and has made his house equally resplendent, with a laser projection of large blinking blue and white snowflakes on the house façade and icicles hanging off the porch eaves that seem to be perpetually melting. (George senior said he disapproves of the laser light displays. Like other purists, he said it’s “cheating” and said he much prefers the more traditional decorations. “The more nostalgic stuff I find is better.”)
Fred Kormann, who lives with his wife, Melanie, across the street at Number 24, said the row of tall red candlesticks that line either side of their front walk have a special sentimental value: they belonged to his grandfather and for years graced the front of his grandfather’s house in Passaic, N.J. Kormann, who moved to Derrenbacher Street 10 years ago and works as a chef, said “one of my idols is Clark Griswold, from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, who put up 5,000 lights around his house.”
Kormann added that moving to Derrenbacher Street fulfilled a kind of destiny for him. “Before we bought the house in Kingston, we were always renting and could only do the inside,” he said. “We bought the house without knowing how crazy the street was and it was like fate we moved to that street.”