Without looking at the calendar, Don and Joanne Kaplan's Agoura Hills neighbors know when Christmas is close at hand.
Just after Thanksgiving every year, the Kaplans' 21-year-old son, Drew, and his girlfriend, Gail Terrassi, begin wiring a few strings of outdoor mini-lights together. When the job is completed, more than 40,000 bulbs are in place--not to mention Santa Claus, a full complement of reindeer, a plastic train, various toy soldiers and, just for a little something extra, a thick misty fog rolling out of the garage every five minutes. It's enough to make you wonder if a Disneyland Electric Light Parade float escaped from Anaheim.
"It started out just for our immediate family," Don Kaplan, 52, said. The family tradition, which began in Woodland Hills in 1980, continued when the Kaplans moved to Agoura Hills in 1985.
The 1990 display, designed by Drew, is the biggest to date, requiring more than 200 extension cords and drawing close to 200 amps of electrical power.
"In 1986 we started popping all our circuit breakers in the house," Don Kaplan said. "So I called in our electrician, and he suggested dedicating new circuits to the lights." At that time, the family was using about 7,800 lights a year. By 1987, the entire electrical system had to be upgraded to accommodate the ever-increasing seasonal load.
"Every year we want to do something different," he said, pointing to the ground-hugging fog produced by a machine in the garage. "Next year we're having arches over the driveway, maybe another fog machine for the train." He stopped and looked around. "This is a ball," he said.
Extensive Christmas lighting displays of houses and in some cases, entire city blocks are in vogue again. Homes such as the Kaplans' are drawing interest not only from neighbors but from carloads of people from throughout the city.
Diane Monroe and her husband, Mike, turn their Northridge front lawn into a child's dream world of candy canes, snowmen, carolers and Santa Claus. A manger scene and a large cross are also on display. "We're just big kids," Diane said. "I'm 42 going on 16, and every year we try to add something new."
Last year, she said, it was Santa Claus; this year, the cross.
The Monroes begin dragging out the lights and decorations the Friday after Thanksgiving and keep everything burning brightly until after New Year's Day.
"It doesn't cost much," she said. "This year's utility bill was about $20 more than last year. We love it and love doing it. We decorate for everything. If we aren't going to have fun doing it, we're not going to do it. Maybe I should do Halloween out here, too."
Monte Markowitz of West Hills isn't thinking about Halloween, just the 5,000 lights he and his family have just strung all over the front of the house and lawn, half of them hand-glued to the roof.
"We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas in our house," said Markowitz, 37, pointing to the large menorah amid the snowman, toy soldiers and Santa Claus figures. A Star of David keeps the Christmas lights company on the roof.
"Friends of mine live in Agoura, and we have a competition each year to see who can put the most lights up and do the nicest job possible," he said. "We do it for the kids, for fun, for the time of the year."
In some areas, families convert entire streets into a celebration of lights. Laurel Creek Drive, for example, a short cul de sac in Valencia, shows what a neighborhood can do when Christmas is in the air.
Each house interprets the holiday in its own way. A train runs around the perimeter of one front yard. Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus finally get a little rest in another. Nativity scenes abound, as do thousands of multicolored lights. At the end of the street, a large "Merry Christmas" makes sure every visitor knows the reason for the celebration. Carolers from a local school pay holiday visits, too.
A well-lit Christmas started on Laurel Creek Drive in the early 1980s, homeowners said, when a few neighbors persuaded most of the people on the block to make something special.
"One year we tried to make a snowman out of three tumbleweeds," said resident Susan Talbot, 39, who, with her husband, Stuart, take care of Mr. and Mrs. Claus and the reindeer. "We put them together, spray-painted them white, and it looked pretty good. Then it rained, and the paint washed away."
This year, a large, bright yellow ribbon is tied to a tree in the Talbots' front yard for the troops in the Persian Gulf.
A visitor from England who is staying with friends on Laurel Creek Drive remarked, "This is my first American Christmas, and it's different."
The British visitor, Christopher Morgan, 27, said: "Christmas is celebrated on a big scale back home, but not many people bother with so many lights outside their house. This is a great community spirit. You wouldn't get people in England driving around and looking at people's houses."