It’s a Sunday night in December, and as I do most nights, I am walking the streets of Brea, peering into homes. But for once, I’m not alone. There are scores of other people crammed into this small neighborhood just east of the Kramer-Birch intersection, and there are at least that many cars inching their way at a funereal pace through the area.
It’s Eagle Hills’ 35-year-old tradition of going whole hog on Christmas decorations, with scores of homes on the cul-de-sacs and main drag of Starflower Street outfitted with extravagant light and inflatable displays. And while most are light on subtlety and yuge on overblown excess, and while it’s tempting for those of us who harbor an inner Grinch to scoff at ostentatious displays and decorations during the holidays as the purview of people with ample disposable income, lots of time on their hands, and some kind of need to express themselves in often over-the-top and, occasionally, very strange ways, there’s something else going on.
For amid the lights draped across lawns and atop rooftops, dangling from eaves and any tree, bush or surface that can sustain them, the panoply of inflatable Santas, snowmen, penguins, polar bears and Snoopys, the life-sized nativity scenes, the Chewbaccas and Mickey Mouses, something begins intruding on the sense that all of this is just neighbors trying to one-up one another in some zeal to get the most oohs and ahhs.
There is legitimate theater going on here. Every home is its own stage, and each one has some kind of story to tell; some are subtler and even tasteful, with simple, white, cardboard silhouettes of the people and animals at the manger gracing one lawn. Others are just bizarre, such as a collection of demented-looking elves anchored in place who appear to be working overtime to get gifts out, all doing so in front of one polar bear that looks as if it’s genuflecting to another, which holds a gift.
Maybe it even approaches folk art, although that is stretching the term as these displays traffic so much in commercialism and consumerism (these decorations ain’t cheap, with Disney and Peanuts characters giving Santa a run for his money; and while the real reason for the season signs and baby Jesuses in the manger are present, they are obscured by the glitz). But it’s undeniable that many of the homes demonstrate a great deal of creativity—hell, even artistry.
Whatever it is, or isn’t, the biggest trip is no one is making a dime. According to the website Brea Old and New (www.breaoldandnew.com), which is either affiliated with the city or administered by people who really, really love the place, this all started in 1981 when a small group of neighbors began decorating their homes, and it has grown into the current electric carnival, with at least 100 homes joining in and about 40 going all-in.
John McQuade, one of the original decorators, is named in one story on the site as a “ringleader,” but he is quoted saying there is no neighborhood committee or meetings, and other neighbors say cooperation, not competition, is the bag, as many help one another set up displays. That sense of community extends outward to the people who flock to the neighborhood; though I didn’t see it, apparently some homeowners open the interior of their homes to visitors to see more decorations, and plenty of residents were on-hand greeting passersby.
But other than traffic signs on Birch that tell viewers no unauthorized vehicles are allowed (something that obviously doesn’t stick, as there were hundreds of cars limping along), there is no Big Brother with his controlling paws in the mix. And other than a small group of kids selling bottled water for $1 and Santa hats for $3, no one is hawking anything but good, old-fashioned holiday goodwill and cheer, albeit by spending a great deal of time and money (the inflatables range from $20 to $200, and one home had at least 15 of them piled against one another).
Now, the traffic and pedestrians have to be a goddamn nightmare for those few residents who don’t join in. But I can’t help thinking at least one non-participant effectively got his or her message across. One corner house had no twinkling Christmas lights or inflatables. In fact, the only thing illuminated was a small part of the lawn, which is all native landscaping.
Yeah, it all gets a bit much, as one display tends to melt into other. But in a day and age of surveillance cameras, suspicion and paranoia, the residents of this neighborhood have no problem inviting countless strangers to check out their homes, without a cop in sight or a ticket to buy.
And I’m sure it’s all worth it. At least until that next SCE bill comes in.
The Eagle Hills neighborhood is located off Starflower Street and Primrose Avenue, Brea. Lights go on at sundown (duh) every night through Dec. 29. Free.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???