It began with a few Christmas decorations inherited from his grandparents. Gary Rasche thought he’d carry on their tradition by placing a few in front of his Santa Rosa home.
But it quickly blew up into a full blown holiday obsession. After 25 years, Rasche’s outdoor display has grown into a magical Christmas forest that draws hundreds of people to his Montecito Heights home every night during the cold nights of December.
Visitors don’t just drive by 4481 Montecito Ave. for a quick look of wonder. A sign at the entrance to his driveway — right beneath a glowing Santa Claus in a hot air balloon — welcomes all to “Walk In.”
Once you enter the portal, it feels like you’ve wandered into a theme park, surrounded by familiar characters, from snowmen to a giant dinosaur, Snoopy to Star Wars figures. Rasche has amassed a huge collection of Christmas inflatables, wondrous creatures larger than life and lit from within.
Rasche isn’t competing with the Clark Griswolds of the world — he of the classic Christmas Vacation movie — who want to outshine their neighbors with a blinding display of circuit-breaking lights. He just wants to offer a little enchantment to little ones who wander along the path and look up in wonder at giant polar bears and penguins and other Christmas characters, some on life-size inflatable carousels that really turn.
He says it costs him $3,200 in electricity to put on this show for the community every December. But he declares it’s worth every penny.
“Once I’ve got it all lit up, families love it, especially the little kids. They like to look at all the little stuff. They really enjoy. Their eyes are as big as saucers.”
Rasche doesn’t even know how many inflatables he’s collected over the years, Every year a few wear out and of course, they must be replaced, giving him an excuse to go shopping.
“I get there as soon as they start bringing the stuff out, to get the good stuff before it’s sold,” said Rasche, who makes the rounds of Lowe’s, Home Depot and Big Lots in search of inflatables they he doesn’t already have. This year there are 12 new characters added to the fold. And every year it is set up differently, so no two annual displays are exactly alike.
A retired boat shop owner — he had Boatland in Coddingtown for 33 years — he begins assembling his holiday amusement park on Oct. 1 and officially turns on the lights the day after Thanksgiving. The gates to Rasche’s Christmas wonderland remain open through New Year’s Day night. He flips on the switch at 4:30 p.m. that instantly lights up and inflates his yard. He turns them off at 9:30 p.m. on weeknights and 10:45 p.m. on weekends, sending all those inflatable flopping to the ground.
Part of what inspires such awe is the long driveway leading up to Rasche’s shingled house. At Christmas, it is a wide promenade with inflatables covering almost every square foot of the yard on either side, each carefully set on clean clear plastic tarp. Electric candles light the way, leading up to the house, where the roof is lit not just with lights at the eaves, but in precision rows.