Some Americans go all in on their holiday decorations, investing thousands in lights, displays and more. Over the years, they’ve spent a staggering amount.

Hand-carved figurines, gigantic LED screens and twinkling lights: these are the hallmarks of America’s extreme holiday decorators. These festive-décor fanatics say the thousands of dollars – and hours of labour – is worth it. 

Over-the-top holiday decorating certainly extends beyond the US, yet American homeowners tend to take a different tack, focusing less on cohesive neighbourhood displays and more on wildly individual spectacles that attract hordes of visitors. These displays sometimes take decades to curate, with cumulative investments reaching well into the hundreds of thousands.In Missouri, Mike Bagwell's display includes a total of 270,000 bulbs (Credit: Courtesy of Mike Bagwell)

In Missouri, Mike Bagwell’s display includes a total of 270,000 bulbs (Credit: Courtesy of Mike Bagwell)

Mike Bagwell, 52: $130,000 (£102,300)

If you’d like to visit Mike Bagwell’s multi-yard light display in Springfield, Missouri, it’s best to arrive with a full tank of petrol. As Christmas draws near, carloads of spectators might idle for an hour or more waiting in line to see the spectacle, which Bagwell has curated since 2002.

The primary display spans two yards – Bagwell’s current home and his childhood home, which he now owns. But he also offers free decorating services to neighbours who want to contribute to the block’s holiday cheer, supplying and assembling light displays, taking them down and raking neighbours’ leaves for their trouble.

Bagwell, a controls engineer for a multinational food company, estimates that he’s spent a cumulative $130,000 on holiday decorations over the years, and that includes plenty of lights. The main display has around 30,000 standard bulbs and 80,000 pixels – light bulbs with three individual LED lights within – for a total of 270,000 bulbs. He budgets between $3,000 (£2,360) and $5,000 (£3,934) per year for repairs and improvements, and his average electric bill to power both houses’ displays runs about $500 (£393) for the month of December.

“I spend more on Christmas than I do on my home,” says Bagwell. “Things are always breaking and getting repaired. You’ve got inflatables wearing out their motors; pixels and lights that always require fixing. It’s like running a factory – there’s lots of technology, especially in the main display.”

That’s because the display synchs up with Bagwell’s precisely programmed local radio station show. Visitors can tune in on their car radios to listen to holiday favourites as Bagwell’s inflatables, lights and animatronic characters all boogie to the beat. 

He says, “When you can build something and have the community come together – when you see the laughter and the joy, it just makes it all worthwhile.”Marissa Bessler's father, 70-year-old retired carpenter Rick Esposito, has dozens of hand-carved characters (Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Bessler)

Marissa Bessler’s father, 70-year-old retired carpenter Rick Esposito, has dozens of hand-carved characters (Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Bessler)

Melissa Bessler, 39: $51,000 (£40,000)

Melissa Bessler leads the month-long operation to decorate the Tinley Park, Illinois house she shares with her parents and two children (pictured at top). “It’s a family thing,” says Bessler. “We start the day after Halloween, and it’s all hands on deck.” 

By “all hands”, Bessler means her parents, adult siblings and in-laws, plus a gaggle of nieces and nephews. When the crew is finished, the display comprises approximately 15,000 lights and 150 plastic holiday blow moulds – mid-century-era outdoor decorations that can fetch hundreds in vintage markets. Most notable are the nearly 400 figurines, handmade by Bessler’s father, 70-year-old retired carpenter Rick Esposito. 

Esposito began the tradition 34 years ago when he carved three plywood figures based on Hardrock, Coco and Joe, a 1951 stop-motion holiday cartoon. Since then, he’s added dozens of hand-carved creations, including a Ferris wheel and a ski lift. “It just added up a little at a time,” says Esposito. “I’d get an idea, we’d build it, then refine it over the years and just keep adding to it.”

To carry on the tradition, Bessler and her parents must get creative about financing. They spend about $1,500 (£1,180) in an average year, an estimate that includes their electric bill – roughly $300 (£236) for the month of December, plus repairs for the decorations, including a vintage train set that’s proven to be a fan favourite. “It was about $600 (£472) to repair the train just this year,” says Esposito.

Now, Bessler checks eBay, Facebook Marketplace and other resale destinations in search of a good deal. “We’ve also found a woman who will use her 3D printer to reprint noses and eyes, so we can repair the ones we have,” says Bessler.

The Espositos also budget for neighbours’ letters to the North Pole, which the family fields via a hand-carved mailbox. If visitors provide a return address, they receive handwritten responses from Santa Claus, which cost the family around $500 (£393) in postage and other materials.

Bessler’s mother, Cindy Esposito, says the tradition is worth the expense. “We don’t necessarily put a cap or a dollar amount on it – we just know it’s coming,” she says. “My kids range from 37 to 45 years old, and their friends have been coming here their whole lives. They are now bringing their kids – the next generation – which is really nice to know.”In Tennessee, John Maynard's strategy to save money is buy next year's decorations after each Christmas, when they're on sale (Credit: Courtesy of John Maynard)

In Tennessee, John Maynard’s strategy to save money is buy next year’s decorations after each Christmas, when they’re on sale (Credit: Courtesy of John Maynard)

John Maynard, 65: $10,000 (£7,870)

John Maynard enlisted his daughter, Lucy, to help with holiday lights when she was six years old. Now, she’s 33, and the Maynard light display has become a tradition in at their home in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“We’ve got about 150 separate light-up figurines,” says Maynard. “We’ve got rows of candy cane lights – 25 or so – and a whole field of light-up deer.

Unlike some extreme holiday decorators, Maynard avoids inflatables and other flashy accoutrements. He prefers to focus on the lights, which he says generally don’t impact his electric bill to an unmanageable degree. “It might be, you know, 60 or 80 bucks more that month,” says Maynard. 

He’s taken that measured approach throughout his holiday decorating tenure. “In 25 years, we’ve probably spent $300 (£236) or $400 (£314) a year,” says Maynard. “So maybe somewhere in the ballpark of $10,000 (£7,869) over the years, but just a little at a time. We’d get things kind of cheap after Christmas, when they’re 75% off or so.”

It takes Maynard and his daughter about a week to assemble the display. “Lucy’s mom and my other daughter, Laura, usually just hang out in the house and laugh at us,” he says, chuckling, noting that it took the pair about five days to get this year’s display up and running.

It’s a tradition 27 years in the making, and it’s here to stay: “Because Lucy and I get to do it together,” says Maynard.Dominic Kowalczyk's Christmas display takes nearly 80 people to execute (Credit: Courtesy of Dominic Kowalczyk)

Dominic Kowalczyk’s Christmas display takes nearly 80 people to execute (Credit: Courtesy of Dominic Kowalczyk)

Dominic Kowalczyk, 40: $200,000 (£157,400)

Chicago area residents might recognize Dominic Kowalczyk from his 2013 appearance in The Great Christmas Light Fight, a US program featuring over-the-top holiday decorators competing for a cash prize. Ten years later, Kowalczyk’s holiday display is bigger than ever.

Also located in Tinley Park, Illinois, Kowalczyk’s home is known as the TP Christmas House. His display features a staggering 300,000 lights, 400 holiday figurines and, new this year, a 17-foot LED screen featuring clips from classic holiday films Christmas, spliced alongside drone footage of Kowalczyk’s decorations.

The 40-year-old contractor started building out his extravagant display in 1996. Since then, he’s assembled a small army – about 80 friends and family members – to erect the display each year. “At some points, I’ve got literally hundreds of people in front of my house,” he says. “We all hang out, eat food, drink, have a good time. And we actually have a big Christmas party every year for everyone that helps, so we’ll probably have over 100 people at that party this year.”

Kowalczyk also encourages donations to a local non-profit via Venmo, and physical donation boxes in front of the display. This year, he’s steering visitors toward Together We Cope, a social-services agency that serves the south Chicago suburbs. “Usually, we’re somewhere around $30,000 in donations, which is awesome,” says Kowalczyk.

Overall, Kowalczyk has spent an estimated $200,000 (£157,391) on decorations, repairs and even upgrading his home electricity system. (He generally expects a $600 – [£472] electric bill for the month of December.) 

Then there are the unexpected expenses: “We go through about $100 (£78) of fog juice a year,” says Kowalczyk.In The Bronx, New York, decorations at the Garabedian house ran from 1973 until 2019 – and the family is hoping to bring it back for 2024 (Credit: Getty Images)

In The Bronx, New York, decorations at the Garabedian house ran from 1973 until 2019 – and the family is hoping to bring it back for 2024 (Credit: Getty Images)

Gary Garabedian, 59: $4m (£3.15m)

Nutcrackers and reindeer might suffice for some, but for Gary Garabedian and his sister Linda, holiday cheer means arranging 200 well-dressed mannequins in a series of elaborate tableaux.

The Garabedian house, known colloquially as the Bronx Christmas House, is a holiday tradition for droves of New Yorkers, who trek to the upper borough for a taste of the home’s avant-garde magic.

“My mother, Nelly, started it in 1973,” says Garabedian, noting that a private family event prompted his mother’s original burst of holiday cheer. “It was something that really was like a miracle,” he says. “And it happened on Christmas Eve.”

From 1973 until 2019, the house was known for its extravagant, largely handmade displays – dramatic spotlights, animatronic vignettes and the aforementioned mannequins draped in couture fashions – many designed by Gary and Linda, 64, who operate a handmade couture bridal gown business.

Now, between Covid-19 safety protocols and the siblings’ ongoing recovery from a serious car accident, the display has been mostly dark for four years. But the Garabedians hope to return the home to its former glory in 2024 – and they’re shelling out to make it better than ever.

“We have something major that’s going to blow people’s minds,” says Garabedian. “We put a lot of money in this piece – about $280,000 (£220,347) just for a single set piece. It’s not just one item; it’s a scene.”

The full display is a jaw-dropping investment, even without the new set. “I can’t really put a price on it because we make [the decorations]. We put a lot of money in it,” says Garabedian. “The police department evaluated it at $4m (£3.15m) in 1993. I don’t know what that’s worth now.”

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