TUSTIN — During the day, Domenico Masdea's four-bedroom Tustin home is hardly distinguishable from the other neat but unpretentious dwellings on this quiet cul-de-sac on Caper Tree Drive.
But at night, Masdea's home is transformed into a Christmas decorator's Shangri-La. Passersby first notice the rows of colorful lights hanging from the 46-year-old handyman's roof and bushes. But visitors wanting a closer view stare in wonder when they see the elaborate Christmas tableau he built inside his two-car garage.
Glistening red lava made of aluminum foil seeps from a volcano, constructed on a conveyor belt and rotisserie grill. Water gushes out of two miniature waterfalls, while a Nativity scene and hundreds of Christmas figurines adorn the sand- and snow-covered scene. To add to the effect, music boxes chiming Christmas tunes and recorded sounds of thunder, rain and chirping birds play in the background.
Every year, Masdea's holiday spectacle attracts more than 1,000 visitors to 2351 Caper Tree. As soon as the sun sets, onlookers make their way through the maze of streets leading to his home, lured by a sign that urges, "Visit the Nativity."
"Yeah, it's something all right," said Carl Kasalek Sr., who recently came to look at the decorations with his son and grandson. "I might do it too, but I don't have shares in the electric company."
From the intricate display, it's easy to imagine Masdea as an ostentatious and somewhat eccentric Christmas enthusiast. But Masdea is quiet and low-key. He wears comfortable, plain sweaters, and he doesn't talk much unless he's asked questions.
And every night, from 5 to 11, he stands outside his front door, greeting anyone interested in peeking into his garage.
"I want it to be open to whoever wants to see it," he said. "I make sure someone's home every night so that no one is disappointed. One time, a 97-year-old woman in a wheelchair stopped by and said she had never seen anything like it. It made her so happy."
Masdea has built Christmas scenes for the past 13 years--first in his dining room, but for the past three years in his garage. Every year, he changes the scene to keep visitors from getting bored. Although waterfalls and lava flows don't exactly epitomize Christmas, Masdea added them for dramatic effect.
He learned how to build Christmas scenes from his father while growing up in Italy, he said. He decided to carry on the tradition here, although he knows his son and daughter probably won't do the same.
"I'm the only one who has the patience," he said. "When I die, this will die."
It took Masdea three weeks to complete this year's Christmas project, which he unveiled after Thanksgiving.
This year's spectacle, perched on a plywood platform, stands about 20 feet wide and 17 feet long. The tableau's paper walls and ceiling resemble the interior of a cave, while two large mirrors sit across from one another to give the project a 3-D look.
Tiny homes constructed out of cereal boxes sit in the back of the display, while homes made out of toy banks are perched in the front. To illuminate the scene, Masdea installed hundreds of lights, requiring him to add two new electric breakers near the garage. He also used at least 2,000 pins to construct the tableau.
Masdea doesn't pay attention to the electric bill during the holiday season, but he does admit to spending between $200 to $400 each year for new supplies.
"I just buy things that I like," he said. "I just use my imagination and try to figure out how it could fit into the scene."
For the most part, Masdea's family support his efforts and welcome people to their home. But Masdea's 18-year-old daughter, Liliana, said that sometimes the all-consuming family project wears on her.
"I love it," she said. "But sometimes I wish he was inside with us, rather than out here."
And what do his neighbors think about his annual spectacle?
"He's sparked the whole neighborhood to get in the Christmas spirit," said Carl Kasalek, who has lived across the street for seven years and now decorates his own lawn with hundreds of lights and ornaments. "We had a couple (strings of) lights when we first moved in, but he's encouraged us to do more and more."
Marsha Lindsey, another neighbor, also began adding lights to her home after seeing Masdea's display.
"When we saw his decorations, we wanted to do it too," she said
Indeed, every home along the cul-de-sac is trimmed with holiday lights and, in some cases, large Christmas ornaments.
"If you live in a neighborhood where no one comes through, you wouldn't be encouraged to do this," Kasalek said. "But people start driving by around Thanksgiving, asking when the display is going to be ready. You want your house to be part of it too."