Lighting up the neighborhood
By Stacee Sledge
Whatcom Magazine, December 2007

Handmade creation and family rituals color Christmas for Ferndale family

It’s easy to picture Brendan Gair tinkering away in Santa’s workshop — though he’d tower over the other busy elves. He certainly has the right combination of artistry, skills and Christmas spirit for the job.


For 13 years this plant manager at Bellingham’s Maax Hydroswirl has created bigger-than-life-size likenesses of his favorite Christmas cartoon characters to adorn the festively lit yard of his family’s Ferndale home.


Brendan, 45 and his wife Traci, 44, a shipping and receiving clerk at Haggen, have lived in their ranch-style home since 1991, where they’ve raised daughter Stephanie, 19, and son Tristan, 17.


Christmas is a favorite season for them all, celebrated with lovingly handcrafted holiday decorations, baked goods galore, and some unusual holiday rituals. 


Kris Kringle customs are central to the celebration. The family cherishes collections, from hand-stitched Advent calendars and stockings to dozens of German nutcrackers gathered atop the family’s piano and incense-holding smokers in Santa’s likeness lining the fireplace mantel.


Traci resorts to inventive tricks for concealing which gifts under the noble fir belong to Stephanie and which are earmarked for Tristan. It’s an elaborate game the kids still enjoy.


“The first year was movie stars and cartoon characters,” says Tristan. One child’s gifts were addressed to Cary Grant, for instance, but they didn’t know which one. Traci has devised puzzles using cities and countries, among other creative brainteasers.


“And it gets harder and harder,” Tristan continues.


Last year Traci attached individual children’s foam bathtub letters to each package, and both kids had words they need to unscramble.


The Gairs are fans of Christmas films and cartoons, which play a central part in their holiday hoopla. “Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch were the big ones, and now I have them all on DVD,” says Brendan.


“I’m also an old movie buff,” he says. “We watch all the standards as a family: “Miracle on 34th Street,” “White Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” — I know it’s a bit overdone, but we watch it every year.”


Brendan’s favorite growing up in Canada was “Scrooge” with Alastair Sim from 1951. “We used to watch it on BBC every Christmas morning.”


10,000 lights

For all the festivity inside the Gair holiday home, it’s the outdoor décor that first grabs guests’ attention and compels complete strangers to stop and ask if their children can pose for photos on the lawn. The home has likely appeared on innumerable local holiday photo cards.


Everything goes up shortly after Thanksgiving. “If the kids could haul me out there right after we eat turkey, they would,” Brendan says with a smile.


With upwards of 90 strings of lights put to task —Brendan estimates it’s nearly 10,000 lights total — you can bet the electric bill takes a hit. “But it’s so fun, it’s worth it,” he says.


Brendan’s warm-weather hobby is landscaping, evident in his meticulous lawn. Lighted bushes, trees, and fences encircling the home form the backdrop for a sparkling light show on par with the best jaw-dropping displays across wintry Whatcom County


But the cartoon characters push Brendan’s landscape to another level. Each creation is instantly familiar to anyone who’s been to Disneyland or watched the traditional televised Christmas specials in annual rotation since the mid-1960s, like “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.”


“I must have done my first one in 1992 or 1993, the first or second year we lived here,” Brendan recalls, looking across his vast, glowing landscape. “I did Frosty off the video box, and then I started doing one every year.”


‘My creative outlet’

A Norman Rockwell-inspired Santa is bolted to the chimney on the roof. “He’s a pain to install,” says Brendan, “because he’s about 85 pounds and I have to walk on the shake roof with him.”


“He used to wave,” says Traci, laughing.


“Yeah, I had a barbecue rotisserie out there” to move Santa’s arm, remembers Brendan.


Joining Frosty on the spacious lawn is the Grinch, the Peanuts gang, The Bumble (aka. the Abominable Snow Monster of the North) towering over a diminutive Hermey the Misfit Elf and Rudolph, Mickey and Minnie Mouse in a sleigh pulled by Pluto, and the Seven Dwarfs, among others. Brendan also dreamed up a lighted Christmas wreath and a nutcracker standing at attention between two lofty candy canes in the side yard.


Building each plywood design is a time-consuming endeavor. Brendan draws inspiration from the front of DVD and VHS boxes, Christmas cards, coloring books, even TV Guide. He chooses an image, then draws a 1/2-inch grid over the top of the original.


“I transfer the grid (in pencil) to six inches per foot onto a piece of 3/4-inch plywood and use a fine blade on my scroll saw to cut the whole thing out,” Brendan explains.


He then hand draws the design onto the plywood using the grid as a guide, cuts the outline and paints the piece with hand-mixed acrylic paints. To finish he attaches fence posts on the back.


Each one takes about a week of post-workday evenings, working four or five hours a night. But it’s clearly a labor of love for Brendan. “I did a lot of art in high school, but then I never really pursued it,” he says. “So this is my creative outlet.”


Brendan has now made 11 or 12 total (he’s lost count), having devised some for friends and family. “I did a Grinch in a chimney from the video box for a friend in Snohomish,” he recounts. “And I did a Winnie the Pooh and Piglet carrying a stack of gifts about 8 feet high for my mother-in-law.”


Spreading cheer

It’s fun for Brendan, Traci, Stephanie and Tristan, but also a blast for area children of all ages. Spreading cheer to the kids whose parents drive them by each year is part of the family’s love of the holidays.


“That’s what I did when I was a kid,” Brendan says. “We didn’t have a lot of dough, so we did stuff like this for entertainment.”


Brendan and Traci are nostalgic for the way things used to be, when more cars full of spectators wheeled by their entrancing light show. “Ten years ago, cars would come in solid and out solid, all the way through the development,” says Brendan. “Buses came through.”


One neighbor had strobe lights and music; another’s yard showcased a cascading waterfall in bright blue. “It was nuts,” says Brendan appreciatively, “You could see it from space!’


“I think Whatcom County has just gotten so broad that there are different lights to see in lots of places,” says Traci.


It’s not quite the way it used to be,” Brendan agrees, “but people still stop and say ‘hi’ and that they love the place.”


As if on cue, a car drives by slowly and rolls to a stop, window lowering.


The driver calls out to Brendan, standing on his lit-up lawn. “My kids love coming by your house every year,” she yells. “You do an awesome job!”


“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Brendan says with a big smile. The car continues on.


“That’s the fun part,” he says with a satisfied smile. “You’re out walking the dog and a kid comes by and the window is down and their eyes are like dinner plates.”

Stacee Sledge is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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