On an early morning 10 days after Thanksgiving 2016, Paul Hoevenaar is checking the lights at the Polisseni home on Beauclaire Lane in Perinton, one of Rochester's must-see holiday displays for more than a decade. Every day through Christmas he'll swing by the house to make sure everything is working. On this particular morning, a Santa traveling by hot air balloon is pitching precariously toward the driveway, and a golden angel with beating wings is listing on the lawn.
A strand of colored lights blinks out. Hoevenaar smiles. "Every day, it's something," he says.
Wanda Polisseni is an icon among local outdoor display makers, and her home draws hundreds, maybe thousands of people every season. She's been decorating for decades, since her adult grandchildren were babies. "I love everything with lights," she says. "I like whimsy for the kids, also traditional and religious decorations."
Hoevenaar points out Polisseni's custom-made, rotating stand that secures a large, live Christmas tree. Polisseni replaced a menorah that burned out last year. And she's added a lamppost with a single green light to commemorate veterans. "There's a little bit for everybody," she says. Another focal point is the life-sized, vintage Santa believed to have once been on display at Macy's in New York City. There's also an Amish buggy — pulled by a 5-foot-tall horse made of driftwood — given to Polisseni by her son, that she fills with presents.
Across Rochester, neighbors are lighting up their homes for the holidays and testing the limits of their imaginations and their amperage. A few seasoned experts explain how they do it, and why.
David Dunning is the Chili Town Supervisor and a serious holiday lights enthusiast. His massive display includes several pieces he made himself with quarter-inch steel pipe and self-taught welding skills. Dunning's show includes animation and static displays, LED and incandescent lights, trees, figurines, and inflatables. "Of just about anything and everything that's available, I have at least one," he says. He had to build a bigger shed to store it all.
Samantha Viveiros in Greece was inspired by a neighbor's display, and has been building her own, with her husband Nick, for four years. Their first year, they purchased Little Tikes houses and made them up into Santa's workshop and Mrs. Claus's Sweets and Treats. "They didn't hold together in the snow, so we took them down," Viveiros says. She has replaced Santa's Workshop and eliminated smaller features that blew into neighbors' yards or got buried in the snow. "In the last few years we've tried to find things that are a little bigger, a little more durable ... Most things are not made to withstand Rochester weather," she says.
Two weeks before Christmas, Michael Schoepfel's neighbors in Penfield zoom past his house at the end of their daily commute. But at 6 p.m., his home is transformed by vibrant lights that stream and flash in changing colors and patterns. "Everything you see has been programmed," Schoepfel says. The outline of the house, arches across the snow-covered lawn, a row of trees, and a small herd of deer illuminate in an elaborate choreography of lights timed to music. That's when the traffic slows.
Starting and maintaining a substantial holiday lights display is no small task. Dunning, between making his own decorations and installing everything himself, is exhausted by the time everything is arranged. Viveiros and her husband juggled last year's installation with caring for a newborn baby. Schoepfel started this season by making multiple trips to his basement to flip the circuit breaker and keep the show running, while he tried to find the source of a ground fault. Polisseni's collection has grown so large, she has to trailer it in from a storage facility in Ontario County. But they all keep going.
Experience is a terrific teacher, and they've all learned a few things along the way.
Test everything. "There is nothing more frustrating than turning the display on Thanksgiving night and seeing that six or seven bulbs on the peak of the roof are out, and you've got to get back up there," Dunning says. His emphatic advice is "test before you put things up."
Hoevenaar tests Polisseni's display every morning, "because I'd rather come during the day when I can find the plugs — they run all over the yard — then come by at night when I get a call that something's out."
Check your amps. Schoepfel advises anyone starting out to choose LED or pixel lights. He says, "A lot of the older lights are not energy efficient." Dunning has shaved hundreds of dollars off his electric bill by changing to LED lights, which "are a little more expensive but require a lot less energy," he says, and spare homeowners "the electrical modification you'd otherwise have to do."
Viveiros has had issues with "power blowing" and had to upgrade the electric panel. "We were overloading breakers, so we had nights where half the display wasn't on," she says. "We'd have to go out there and unplug things — unplug one thing and turn it back on — did it stay on or was it going to blow again? It was a game."
Any outlets that are outside must be ground faulted, and Dunning firmly advises against trying to run extension cords from a regular outlet. "They will get snowed on, they will get wet, and water is not good with electricity."
Watch the weather. Dunning and Hoevenaar both try to get decorations installed on the roof and high eaves before winter sets in. During the season, things get wet, and they short out. "There have been years where I had to bring a shovel out and dig the snow away to try to find out why something doesn't light; if maybe an extension cord separated," Hoevenaar says.
Wind is an issue, too. Polisseni's rotating Christmas tree blew over the first week it was up. "Most nights we have to do a once-over, and pick up the things that have blown over," Viveiros says.
Be nice to your neighbors. The introduction to the audio portion of Schoepfel's animated light show gives visitors tips on how to be considerate of the neighbors — dim the headlights and don't block driveways. Dunning's neighbors kid with him that "they don't have to turn the lights on at night because my house lights up the neighborhood," he says with a laugh.
Hoevenaar says, "We appreciate the patience of the neighbors, especially right around Christmas when they're trying to have their own get-togethers and we have this massive traffic tie-up." Polisseni knows that December is a long month for people on Beauclaire: "Traffic can be backed up, and sometimes I'm waiting to get to my own house," she says. "I really appreciate my neighbors, and I try to do something nice for them."
Is it competition or contagion? With displays getting bigger and bolder in neighborhoods across Rochester, it's natural to wonder if there isn't a little rivalry among neighbors. But Schoepfel got started with the help of a neighbor, and other people have stopped by to ask Schoepfel how to get started. "We're not competing," Polisseni insists. "That's not the spirit of it!"
Viveiros encourages newcomers to join in. "You don't know what you're going to start; if you do it, your neighbors might get involved as well, and then your street becomes this amazingly festive place."
Holiday displays are expensive. A metal frame Santa's sleigh with lights can run $400 on sale. LED lights are efficient but pricey, and items get damaged and need to be replaced every season. Electric bills can skyrocket, and sometimes power must be upgraded to support the shows. Displays also require a lot of hard work, from collecting, creating, and setting up the displays and maintaining them every day to breaking them down in January. Even storage is a big commitment.
So what motivates people to keep going? "I've had kids stop at my house and bring me a plate of cookies to say thank you, and leave hand-written notes in my mailbox," Dunning says. "It's really heartwarming. I've had people tell me they go out of their way on the home from work, just to drive by my house."
Polisseni lights up when she talks about how a friend's granddaughter who visits her house "knows where Santa lives!" In the days before Christmas, cars are backed up to Turk Hill Road waiting to drive by her house. "I love the excitement the kiddies have, and I love to see the busloads of senior citizens and people with special needs. I want to see the smiles on their faces."
"The kids who drive down here and hang out the windows and go 'look at that!' is payment enough," Hoevenaar says. He adds that Polisseni "loves kids...she's out here on Christmas handing out candy canes with her family."
Viveiros reminds people who decorate their homes to enjoy their own displays. "Be sure to take it all in," she says. "And at night when you have people driving by, go out and say hi to them. It's such a happy thing to do: bringing joy to people."
Dunning and his wife do take it in. "My wife and I get in the truck just before Christmas and we drive — we spend 6 hours or better just driving around to look at the lights," he says. "We've been out to Farmington, Webster, just to see the displays. We always go to Wanda's house."
Most displays will come down right after the New Year. Polisseni leaves her lights on for a day or two after, "and if it's frozen," she says "they may be up for a while."
This is Rochester, after all.