What better way to celebrate the holidays than lighting up the dark? In the San Gabriel Valley, they have lined their roofs with winking bulbs, putting electric Santa Clauses in the windows, decorating their fir trees with turned-on stars.
From Pasadena to Pomona, kilowatts are being consumed with merry abandon.
For sheer candlepower, there's the Upper Hastings Ranch neighborhood of Pasadena, where tour buses and lines of cars edge through winding streets, past single-family homes lit up like daylight with Christmas lights.
"I think this is why we live here," said a smiling Dottie Csik, standing on her front lawn on Cartwright Street like an English aristocrat surveying the family estate. On the sidewalk in front of the house, four musicians from Pasadena City College, who call themselves the Brass Act, are playing soft, melodious carols.
The unifying theme on Cartwright Street is "The 12 Days of Christmas," and the front of the Csik home displays a placard with "6 geese a-laying."
Csik's evergreen bushes appear to have been sprayed with tiny white lights ("We have about 13,000 lights, but this year we only used about half of them") and sheep cut-outs, plastered with Styrofoam curls, graze on the front lawn. The centerpiece is a creche, with Mary and Joseph kneeling beside a cradle.
"I was having problems getting them to stay up," said Csik of the two central figures. "So I prayed, and this is what I came up with." She lifts the edge of Joseph's flowing robe to reveal her husband's golf cart.
On Denair Street, slender, bespectacled David Ailanjian, lacking the heft of a traditional Santa Claus, is dressed nevertheless in the familiar red costume. He passes out candy and a printed religious tract, urging people to ponder the real meaning of Christmas.
"It's the main reason we do this," said Ailanjian's nephew, Alex Agulian, pointing at a lighted staron a structure in front of the family house. To complete the display, red bulbs spelled the message: "Christ Savior Is Born."
Suddenly, the block is full of panting joggers. They mill around the front of the Agulian home, pausing long enough to explain that they are the Foothill Flyers, a local running club, which gathers one evening a week for a six- to 10-mile run.
Then they jog away, heading to a member's home for pizza and beer.
The "light-up," as Upper Hastings Ranch residents call the annual decorating spree, can jam the streets with traffic. It can also cost a lot of money, residents say. One couple, in their first Christmas in the neighborhood, said they had spent $500 to decorate their house.
But the effort not only transforms the look of the neighborhood, it softens people's attitudes, residents say. "People are so friendly around this time," says Myrtice Allen, whose house on Medford Road shimmers with red and white lights. "You stop and talk to strangers that you've never seen before. That's the best part."
Even the high-noon look of Upper Hastings Ranch can't exceed the good-natured seat-of-the pants spirit of Altadena, a foothill community of about 42,000 whose residents like to define themselves with a Christmas observance they refer to as Christmas Tree Lane.
Altadena volunteers have been lighting up a one-mile stretch of Santa Rosa Avenue every Christmas since 1920, except during World War II and the 1978 energy crisis.
Motorists come from miles around to drive slowly down Santa Rosa, between Altadena Avenue and Woodbury Road, between rows of massive deodar trees. The century-old trees, which ordinarily blanket the street in darkness, are seeded with Christmas lights, their mossy-looking branches highlighted with green, red, orange and yellow.
"It's a beautiful thing," says Bill Caulfield, a pari-mutuel clerk and leader in the decoration effort, of the lights on the trees and some houses on the lane. From his kitchen window on Colman Street, he can see the Christmas lights.
Altadena is a tradition-minded community. The celebration is fueled by people like Caulfield and Rosa Johnson, a sprightly, talkative woman with gray hair woven into a long pigtail. She frowns on such newfangled practices as Christmas ski trips.
"My family wouldn't think of going skiing for Christmas or going out to Palm Desert, the way some young people do nowadays," sniffs Johnson, who has been volunteering her services on Christmas Tree Lane for the past 33 years.
You figure that Johnson has the Christmas spirit when you see her dressed in a Santa Claus outfit with a clutch of sleigh bells in one hand.
"You don't need snow to celebrate Christmas," she said, waving energetically at a passing car, with children shouting at her from the back seat.
Getting those lights in place becomes more difficult each year, concede members of the Christmas Tree Lane Assn.
"We usually go right down to the wire," says Ed Turley, a burly Los Angeles County Youth Gang Services supervisor and president of the Christmas Tree Lane Assn.