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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.

Mac’s Deli

Where: 630 4th St., Santa Rosa

When: 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mon.-Sat.

Contact: 707-545-3785, macsdeliandcafe.com

Cuisine: American

Price: Inexpensive, entrées $5.95-$11.95

Corkage: n/a

Stars: ★★½

Summary: For 66 years now, the family-run deli has brought us a tasty bite of the Big Apple.

Visitors are welcome to get off the beaten path and explore the forest of inflatables. Santa Claus is a familiar theme, found in every possible conveyance, from a travel trailer to a food truck to a helicopter.

Rasche’s groundskeeper, John Dorato, is the architect who assembles the display each year — a full-time, six week undertaking. He’s been doing it for 20 years, so he has it down to a science. It requires about 1,000 extension cords to light up the forest of Christmas characters, which range from dogs, owls, reindeer and ducks to toy soldiers, superheroes like Spiderman, and a massive green dinosaur dressed like Santa Claus. The largest is a two-story tall reindeer.

Rasche claims to have no favorite, but he’s proud of his massive Grinch, who is stationed at one corner of the house and has the distinction of being the eldest denizen of the forest.

Dorato is meticulous about placing the lights. Rasche insists on using the large outdoor bulbs for greater effect. Dorato staples each bulb so it stands upright rather than lying flat. A spotlight up in an oak tree adorned with ornaments the size of Chinese lanterns projects magical colors onto the pavement.

“I started to count at one point. There’s got to be 100,00 lights,” Dorato said.

Visitors this year are treated not to Christmas tunes but a theme from Star Wars. Rasche opens up his garage door to dedazzle the dads with his classic cars — a shining cranberry red .32 Ford Roadster and a screaming yellow 1934 Chevy Sedan. Throughout the garage are trophies he’s won in car shows and boat contests, vintage gas cans and reproduction pump medallions, as well as a jukebox and a couch inspired by a 1959 Cadillac.

Nicole Mearns, 17, wrapped in a blanket, wandered through Rasche’s wonderland this week, something she has done with her family for the last five years.

“I like how it’s not busy on the road. You don’t get sidetracked with all the car noise,” she said. Parents with young children appreciate how they can park and let the little ones run around safely.

Krystalynn and Steve Martin of Santa Rosa were feeling like the Christmas spirit hadn’t quite hit them. So they packed up their daughter Aevri, a toddler, and set out to see the Christmas lights, hoping to star a new tradition.

“It’s so cool, because it’s so dark driving up here and then magically, you come upon this beautiful display,” said Krystalynn.

Montecito Heights is deeply forested, and only a few homes scattered here and there, well off the road, have modest light displays. But at a sharp turn in the road, there is Rasche’s place standing out in the night like a holiday beacon.

I have a lot of fun doing it,” he said one night, mingling among his visitors and reveling in their joy. “I meet a of people. It’s fantastic. Neighbors bring me flowers. They bring me cakes and cards, thanking me for decorating the neighborhood. As you get older, you appreciate that stuff.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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