It starts with a two-inch Hessian soldier--carved wood, hand-painted, rifle against his shoulder.
"He's first," said Ernest Miller, pointing to the ornament. "That's the ritual."
After the Hessian, Miller wisely stops counting.
In the weeks following Thanksgiving, Miller transforms the Lido Island home he shares with Marie White into a Santa sanctuary--more than 400 of them, he figures. Santas on bookshelves. Santas by the fireplace. Santa and his reindeer suspended above the spa.
"I'm kind of disappointed with this," Miller said of the sleigh and snowflakes dangling over the spa on fish-line rigging. "I wanted to have clouds, too. I tried material. I tried bunches of cotton. I couldn't get it to look right.
"Next year," he said, "I'm thinking about having the reindeer go up through the skylight! Out onto the roof! What do you think?"
It's a question Miller often asks guests this time of year: What do you think?
"Well, I sure can't tell what this place looks like," he said, laughing.
This the seventh year that Miller, who is retired, has decked out his home for the season. While White heads off for a solo vacation--to Maui this year, Hong Kong last--Miller hauls out the holiday trimmings he keeps in a 20-by-30-foot storeroom in Costa Mesa.
"He likes for me to go away while he decorates," White said, "so I can have the initial surprise when I come home and it's all done."
Busy as an elf, Miller hangs wreaths and garlands, edges the drapes with tinsel, adds a poinsettia plant here, a stocking cap there (one found its way onto the crown of White's favorite wooden pelican this year).
And, of course, he brings on the Santas.
Santas made of wood, cloth, porcelain, plastic; small enough to fit in a pocket, large enough to look a toddler in the eyes. Santas bearing switches (for the naughty) and sacks of presents (for the nice). Santa music boxes. Santa bottle covers. A Santa wrapped in reindeer fur (poor Rudolph!).
"I guess my love for these huge displays started when I was a kid," said Miller, 62, who was reared in upstate New York. "I'm a product of the Depression, so naturally Christmases in those days were kind of meager compared to all this.
"I'm not trying to sound like a philosopher, but one memory from when I was growing up does stand out. I was about 7 years old. Money was tight. We had kind of a democratic family, and this one Christmas we voted on whether we would have a tree or presents. There wasn't money for both."
When the votes were tallied, "We had presents--of course!"
Another memory: Christmas, 1944. Cpl. Miller hunkered down in a pillbox in northeastern France, six months into his first combat tour, hundreds of miles from the Normandy beach he scrambled up in June.
Miller and his five bunker mates duck into the forests of Alsace-Lorraine and chop down a fir tree. Back in their concrete lodgings, the troops hang their tree with a couple of dozen "appropriated" ornaments.
Memories fade in the sunny harbor-view home, where Miller and White entertained about 200 guests in the days before Christmas, 1987.
Early this morning, Miller said, he would put on his own Santa suit and stand by a hearth in Malibu. White's three grandsons would watch as he placed presents beneath their Christmas tree, gobbled a few cookies and ho-ho-ho'd for good measure.
"I don't mind doing it," Miller said, "but the cookies are lousy, I'll tell you."