Robert Gatchell doesn't mind the large utility bill he'll have to pay for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, when his otherwise normal house at the corner of County Road and Carole Lane is transformed into a magical kingdom of caroling penguins and dancing Santas.
Nor does he mind when motorists slow down in front of his house to gawk at the beaming Christmas display, a holiday tour-de-force powered by 20,000-plus lights, before they park their cars and shuffle onto his lawn to get a better look.
And he certainly doesn't mind the throng of curious children who will visit his home and ask questions about the North Pole or whether reindeer can really fly.
To the contrary, he looks forward to it all year.
"I start to get really excited in November when we first start to put up the lights and by the time we get to our first night on Thanksgiving I can hardly wait," said Mr. Gatchell, sounding like a film director or stage manager describing his production's opening night.
"We have a policy for Thanksgiving," he adds, "You can't turn on the lights until the bird is at least on the table."
Mr. Gatchell and his wife, Lynn, take great pride in their ambitious Christmas display, which includes everything from handcrafted toys to a mechanized stream from which illuminated reindeer take sips of water.
Their adoration for all things Christmas can be spotted in the obvious, like the thousands of Christmas lights, the full nativity scene and the authentic wooden sleigh pulled by nine tiny reindeer (Rudolph leading the way, of course).
But you can also find it in the little things: like the multicolored fire burning inside the floating igloo guarded by two imperial penguins wearing Santa hats (named Canada and Dry, if you're curious) and the tiny note Santa is writing as he sits in one of two displays of Mr. Cringle's posh North Pole palazzo.
And if you take a closer look at the nativity scene, there seems to be an obvious omission: the manger is minus a baby Jesus. But Mrs. Gatchell quickly points out that the oversight is by design.
"It's not Christmas - the baby Jesus hasn't even been born yet! He won't come out until Christmas Eve," she explains matter-of-factly.
"I think [the baby Jesus] is in a box in the shed," confides Mr. Gatchell when his wife is out of earshot.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Gatchell take their Christmas display seriously, but manage to keep a bit of levity. When Mr. Gatchell is asked to pose for a picture, he runs inside to put on his Christmas slippers that look like something right out of a Dr. Seuss story. The furry footwear have blinking lights and also play a song.
"I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys ‘R Us kid," Mr. Gatchell sings as he takes his place in front of the camera.
Mr. and Mrs. Gatchell, with the help of their son Kyle, have been putting on the Christmas extravaganza for the past 20 years, although the tradition began on a much smaller scale.
After the couple built their house in 1976, they put up a few lights, but nothing that fancy. When Kyle was born in 1981, they decided to celebrate the occasion by adding a few more lights, including their son's Christmas Star, which has been displayed at their home every year since.
In the years that followed, Mr. Gatchell, a longtime employee of the Steamship Authority who now works as a professional woodworker, built an open sleigh and a display case depicting a scene from Santa's workshop. Mr. Gatchell's skills came in handy as he crafted a pile of tiny wooden toys lying at old St. Nick's feet.
Another display case was soon added, depicting Santa next to a wood stove near a fireplace lined with stockings for Mrs. Claus, the reindeer and elves.
From there, things took on a momentum of their own as more lights and displays were added each year.
The Gatchells' display now boasts a full choir of carolers, a mechanical Santa who recites the 'Twas the night before Christmas poem in its entirely, and a magical train that seems to stop and start at a child's command.
"Go, train, go!" shouted one three-year-old girl, who was delighted when the tiny engine fired up and smoke came out its stack. "Now stop, train, stop!" she added, which seemed to magically stop the carriage in its tracks.
Mr. Gatchell smiled nearby, a small device with an antenna in his hand for some unknown reason.
Setting up all the lights and displays requires a lot of work, and it now takes around three weeks each year to put it all together. Each set of lights must be tested before it is hung, and Mrs. Gatchell takes time every year to make changes and add new things to keep the display fresh. Not to mention all the work that goes on at the end of the holiday season, when all the lights must be dried out and stored properly so they don't break or snare.
All the lights and displays are kept in a shed in back of their house that was once their son's playhouse. Stacks of plastic crates have been transformed into an elaborate filing system that separates the white net lights from the running curtain lights from the blinking blue lights.
The interior of the Gatchells' home is also decked out in holiday cheer, although these decorations and toys are for their own enjoyment. On a mantelpiece sits the entire cast of the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, including Yukon Cornelius and Hermit the misfit elf, as well as a small chorus of mechanical dolls who each sing a song. When Mrs. Gatchell activates a lamppost that sings Ding Dong Merrily on High, a reindeer that sings Jingle Bell Rock and a Snowman that jams out on a piano, the effect is electric, if not a little disorienting.
But the clear favorite of both Mr. and Mrs. Gatchell is an item that does not sing songs or wave to children. In fact, it doesn't even have moving parts or illuminated lights. It is a simple wooden box sitting next to the front porch with the words ‘Food Pantry' painted on the front.
In the years that Mr. and Mrs. Gatchell have put on the display, they have never asked what was in it for them. Instead, they have focused on what it can do for others. Last year, the Gatchells collected 14 cases of food and other items collected during the holidays and donated them to the Island Food Pantry, the nonprofit group that provides food and assistance to families in need.
"When we made the donations to [the Food Pantry] last year they told us their stocks were almost depleted. The lights and everything are great, but if we can use this to help some people out, then that's the real magic," Mr. Gatchell said.
In an age when exorbitant Christmas displays have become fodder for Hollywood movies and competitions between neighbors, it is heartwarming to see that the Gatchells' hearts are in the right place. Although they enjoy their display, it is clear that the real satisfaction is seeing the joy it brings to others.
"A lot of families can't get off the Island to see the big displays," Mrs. Gatchell said. "They have to spend their Christmas here so we want to give them something to look forward to. We want this to be part of their Christmas."
The Gatchells' display and joy of Chrismas is so well known and widespread that it has given them some pull with a very important couple from the north - very north. Mr. and Mrs. Claus will be visiting the Gatchells' house on Christmas Eve to meet with Island boys and girls before Santa loads up the sleigh and heads out for his big night.
When asked how they managed to book the big guy on one of his busiest nights of the year, Mr. Gatchell said the Clauses are close friends of the family.
"Yeah . . . you could say we're close to Santa and his wife," Mr. Gatchell said as he looked at his wife, as if envisioning her in a red stocking cap. "Closer then you think."