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Extravagant Christmas light displays wow kids and adults


The warm glow of green, white and red lights emanating from the Pinola family Christmas display beckons passing motorists from blocks away.

A sign out front implores passersby to explore the front yard at 309 Michael Dr. in Santa Rosa, and a closer inspection reveals tiny details: a miniature snowy village display in a window box, more than 100 handmade wooden Christmas characters, reindeer parachuting from the roof.

A mechanical snowman above the front door shoots "snow" out of a tophat dusting visitors Liana, 5, and Ray Macias, 3, who prance gleefully in the winter wonderland.

"Yay snow!" the children shout.

Benny Macias, their father, said this west Santa Rosa house has long been a stop on the family's annual Christmas light tour.

"We see this house every year," said Macias of Santa Rosa. "It's beautiful. It's one of the best."

The Pinola home is adorned with 35,948 lights, and the family of five starts building the display each year just after Labor Day, said Karissa Pinola, 22, a Sonoma State University student.

"It takes a couple of months to get it all set up," she said. "We started doing this when I was five. It wasn't at this scale, but we've been scaling it up since then."

Parents Jerry, a city utility worker, and Laura, a teacher's assistant, have encouraged each of their three children to make a wooden yard ornament every year.

"We love it," Karissa Pinola said. "It's kind of our gift to the community. It's great to see everyone come and look at it and be happy while they're here."

On a recent chilly night, a crowd gathered in front of the house to gape and snap pictures of the spectacle. For many families, a Christmas light tour is a holiday tradition.

In recent years, online applications — including pressdemocrat.com/lights — have popped up to show people where to find the best displays. But many light seekers still rely on word-of-mouth.

The Michael Drive home stands in stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, which is mostly unlit.

"This house is insane," said Ashleigh Christie, 22, a visitor from Cotati. "My grandparents told me about it. It's gorgeous. But it's kind of in a grinchy neighborhood."

For a jaw-dropping neighborhood display, the consensus among the crowd is Santa Rosa's Walnut Court. Dubbed "Snowman Lane," every house on the street near Doyle Park is lit up like a Las Vegas casino. An hourly light show in front of one house attracts a large crowd, said neighbor Noelle Wall.

Tour buses, limos and even Rosie the Trolley, bring hordes of gawkers every evening while cars ply the narrow street and block traffic.

"All of the neighbors come out and help each other set up. It builds the community," said Wall, who sold cookies and hot cocoa to visitors. "Decorating for Christmas is kind of a must in this neighborhood. It gets to be pretty chaotic on the street with all the traffic, but you just know you're staying put."

Some families chose to do their light tour in style. Josh Sterling and Dan Ott of Windsor, each with two children, hired a limo to take the two families to see the best-known displays in Sonoma County. The tour included champagne for the adults and hot cocoa for the kids.

"This is the fun way to do it," Sterling said. "But I think we set the bar too high. Our wives are going to be expecting a limo next year."

The crew was on its way to Rohnert Park and would likely swing by one of the most over-the-top displays in the county at 1190 Cielo Circle.

The house is the canvas for Scott Weaver who, every year, transforms the residence into a cartoon-themed dreamscape. A wooden castle facade covers the front of the house. A 10-foot high Genie from "Aladdin" pops out from the roof. "Peanuts," Disney and Warner Bros. characters dot a yard ablaze in thousands of lights.

For Itxaso Garay of Petaluma, the display takes the cake.

"This one tops everything," she said. "It's like Macy's in New York."

(You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.)