Charge of the light brigade

Two Spanish Springs neighbors go head to head to determine whose yard will have the bigger, brighter Christmas display

Tom Wiechers, left, and Jeff DelGiudice engage in hand-to-hand candy cane combat in DelGiudice’s front yard.

Tom Wiechers, left, and Jeff DelGiudice engage in hand-to-hand candy cane combat in DelGiudice’s front yard.

Photo by David Robert

Peeking through his window one day, Jeff DelGiudice noticed something unusual about his new neighbors. It was the winter of 1995, just days before Christmas, and a couple with a young, brown-haired daughter had recently bought the house across the street. He watched as they didn’t unpack, didn’t arrange furniture and didn’t hang pictures on the wall. Long before tending to the drudgeries of settling in, Tom and Janet Wiechers bought and decorated a Christmas tree. DelGiudice looked through his window and across the street and through the Wiechers’ window and knew.

These folks had no ordinary infatuation with Christmas.

“I’m seeing who our new neighbor is,” DelGiudice reminisces. “They don’t have any furniture, and there’s a tree. [And I thought], ‘Competition.’ “

Jeff and Sherri DelGiudice, who had moved in several years before, decorated their house with a few strands of lights and a few blow molds (plastic figurines) every Christmas. Still, their modest one-story stood out during the holidays, since few in this quiet Spanish Springs neighborhood put up lights at all. But when the Wiechers moved in, it was clear that this new family belonged to a different breed.

Christmas came early the next year, and the Wiechers’ home glowed from the light of white Christmas bulbs. Tom Wiechers let his neighbor believe that his arsenal ended there. Then, at the last minute, the first in what was to become a long line of secret weapons was unveiled: an impressive nativity scene. The Wise Men, Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus reposed peacefully in their plastic manger, but outside the manger the cold December air was charged with competition. The war of the lights had begun in earnest.

Hidden Valley in south Reno has a longstanding reputation as the Christmas ornamentation mecca of the Truckee Meadows. Families of three, four, five, six, filling up their minivans and SUVs, take pilgrimages to this suburban holiday fantasyland, the kids growing wide-eyed in the backseat. But in the last couple years, the lights of Hidden Valley have begun to flicker out. Hidden Valley resident David West still decks out his now-famous house on Foxtail Drive, but he says that much of his competition has moved away or no longer goes to the lengths it once did.

The dimming of Hidden Valley, Wiechers says, corresponds with the brightening of Spanish Springs.

“I think we’re kicking Hidden Valley’s butt,” he says. “Hidden Valley’s fading away. We’re the new Hidden Valley.”

On a late afternoon in early December, the new Hidden Valley is still and quiet in the dusk. A flat, gray sky slowly turns wild pink in the west. Pyramid Highway winds through low desert hills and into the broad valley that is home to Spanish Springs. The intersection of Pyramid and La Posada Drive marks the shopping district of this community. (Namely, an Albertson’s grocery.) Driving east on La Posada, the road stretches out, becomes a tiny stripe cutting through the hills in the distance. Horses meander on acre lots. The Sparks city limit ends about halfway down the road, not long after the turnoff for Cordoba Boulevard, a nondescript, curving street lined with unexceptional single-story homes.

Jeff DelGiudice enlists his daughter Miranda, 16, in his campaign for neighborhood light domination.

Photo by David Robert

Then, at the end of the street, there’s a furry green 15-foot Monsters Inc. monster and other assorted Monsters Inc. characters. Across the street, there’s a conglomeration of lights powered by enough juice either to do something very good for or very bad to a small country—around 15,000 lights in fact, twinkling brighter and brighter as the sky darkens. Between the two residences, a steel arch hangs over the street, spelling out “MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM THE WIECHERS AND THE DELGIUDICES” in lights.

It’s Year Eight of the Christmas war. As with any war, the weapons keep getting bigger.

“Tommy’s the builder, and it’s hard to [get an] edge when you’ve got this 15-foot monster in the front lawn,” DelGiudice says. “So I go heavy on the lights. Last year it was red, white and blue. This year it’s candy canes.”

We’re not talking a couple candy canes—a nice, tame border of candy canes or a few candy canes as lawn garnish. The north side of DelGiudice’s house is forested with dozens of candy canes somewhat shorter than walking canes, and his front lawn is packed with blow molds, each accompanied by a candy cane. A trio of penguins and Mickey Mouse, Minnie and Goofy stand on the front lines of the lawn. Winnie the Pooh and Tigger are partnered up a little behind, also armed with candy canes, and another Pooh and Snoopy stand behind them. A trio of smartly dressed toy soldiers brings up the rear, guarding Santa, Mrs. Clause and two plumb Frosty snowmen. A giant inflatable Frosty and Santa—almost frightening in their clownishness and hugeness—lurk in the back.

Front and center sits a wooden manger and nativity scene, flanked by two red-and-white striped poles standing maybe 12 feet high. They were supposed to be candy canes, too, but topping them with a hook proved tough. And, as DelGiudice is quick to point out, he’s not the builder. He’s the lights guy.

“He’s amazing,” Wiechers admits. “He’ll take his lights, and he’ll alternate them: red white, red white.”

DelGiudice is likewise admiring of his neighbor.

“There’s kind of an art to it,” he says. “You know what the trick is? He’s got patience. Like the time he poured 13 yards of concrete [in his yard] and he opened the door, and the dog comes out. If it were me, I would have shot the dog. And he just said, ‘Shadow, come here.’ I wish I had that patience.”

DelGiudice, who with tanned skin and teasing hazel eyes looks much younger than his 40-some years, might be mistaken for your average ski bum—not a husband and father of two daughters, Juliette, 17, and Miranda, 16. He, like Wiechers, is a builder; he owns Adobe Masonry. But when it comes to the welding skills needed for projects like the arch, DelGiudice can’t compete with Wiechers.

Ironically, Wiechers is in the business of destruction, not construction. He’s slated to take over the family auto wrecking yard, D&D Foreign Dismantlers Inc. Wiechers is, fittingly, a perfect counterpart to DelGiudice: He’s got a quiet sense of humor that comes through in his eyes more often than in laughter, though his blonde moustache will sometimes twitch mischievously. There’s a sturdy, soft-spoken quality about him that makes you think you’ve seen him on Home Improvement before. He says that he’s always been a builder. He doesn’t need a kit or instructions.

Frosty the Snowman seems happy to be an unwitting pawn in the Christmas decoration war.

Photo by David Robert

“I just do it, and I’ve always just done it,” he says. “I see it in my head and just do it. My neighbors think I’m nuts. I grab steel out of the wrecking yard and just start building it up. I love to build things.”

Wiechers says that 2002 is the best year yet. The Monster, Sulley from Monsters Inc., stands nearly two stories high; Mike, the eyeball character from the movie, waves from a giant decorated box. Next to Sulley is a life-size door painted like those in the movie. Smaller doors line the front of the Wiechers’ property, each painted by a friend or family member and emblazoned with the decorator’s name. There’s a nativity scene on the north end of their property, and an arch on their roof—much smaller than the street arch, but still impressive—that spells out “WELCOME MONSTERS INC.”

The Monsters Inc. theme comes on the heels of the 17-foot Grinch displayed in 2000 and the giant Jack Skellington that towered over the Wiechers’ yard last year.

“We try to stay with what’s popular at the time,” he says. “So it’s like, hurry up and build. I did the Grinch [around the time the movie came out], and it was like, perfect timing.”

“It’s whatever our daughter [7-year-old Amberlia] is into,” Janet Wiechers says. “If she knows about it, the other kids will be [into it].”

This year, to make the monster, Wiechers spent 20 hours welding a steel frame. Three family members spent five straight hours sewing its fur—a special two and a half inch shag fur Wiechers ordered from a manufacturer in New York—and another five hours on details like the eyes and mouth. Despite his love for enormous lawn creatures, however, Tom insists that, unlike his neighbor, he prefers mellow illumination.

“I don’t like the big lights,” he says. “I like little ones. They’re more sparkly. I go with pretty much all white. I can’t keep up with my neighbor. He’s got more money than me.”

The neighbors’ war isn’t a conceptual one. Their battles have a real, material endpoint every year: The prize for best Christmas decorations given by their homeowners’ association and another given by the City of Sparks. The competition officially began in 1997, the year that Wiechers waited to decorate until DelGiudice had already laid his cards on the table. When DelGiudice finished decking out his yard with blow molds, Wiechers went all the way to the Fallon Wal-Mart to find creatures not sold locally.

The neighbors tied for first place that year in their homeowners’ association’s contest. But back then, the stakes weren’t as high.

“We got a homemade blue ribbon [that read], ‘Congratulations, you decorated!’ “ Wiechers jokes.

“You’ve created a monster!” The Wiechers, Janet, 2-month-old Dylan, Shadow, Amberlia, 7, and Tom, pose in their front yard with Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc.

Photo by David Robert

Christmas on Cordoba Boulevard hadn’t become something extraordinary yet.

During the next couple years, the neighbors continued to build up their armies of blow molds. In 1998, Wiechers built a fake frozen pond in his yard, complete with skating penguins chasing fish around the icy “pond.”

“That was something that ticked me off,” DelGiudice says. “I get my house all done, and he’d go out and get one extra thing.”

“The secret weapon,” Wiechers replies evenly.

Wiechers won that year; DelGiudice took second.

“I got the Oh-So-Close Participation Award,” DelGiudice jokes. “I was like a little kid not getting what he wants for Christmas.”

Next year, DelGiudice meant business.

“He bought all those blow molds,” Wiechers says, motioning across the street to DelGiudice’s yard. “Then, he got the [fake] fireplace, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble.'”

DelGiudice took the homeowners’ assocation prize in that year, 1999. Then, in 2000, Wiechers pulled out a secret weapon that neighbors are still talking about: a 17-foot Grinch. That Grinch earned him both the homeowners’ prize and the City of Sparks competition. Last year, even though Wiechers built a 20-foot Jack Skellington, a character from The Nightmare Before Christmas, DelGiudice still dazzled the homeowners’ assocation and the City of Sparks with his patriotic display of lights, taking first place in both competitions.

Three years ago, the neighbors got the idea for an arch—the biggest secret weapon of them all.

Hundreds of candy canes protect DelGiudice’s home from the invasion of the light brigade.

Photo by David Robert

"[DelGiudice] was saying, ‘What’s your secret weapon gonna be, an arch?’ “ Wiechers says.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. The arch, made from steel, chicken wire and lights, served as a sort of metaphorical handshake spanning the distance between the neighbors’ homes. In fact, last year the arch united them against a common foe—Washoe County officials, who told the neighbors they had to take the arch down or pay for an engineering study, which would cost $1,500. Officials were afraid the arch would fall and hurt someone. At the last minute, though, engineering firm Brown and Caldwell saved the day.

“They wanted us to tear it down right away,” Wiechers says. “And we would have spent the $1,500. But this guy at Brown and Caldwell called and offered to do it for free.”

Wiechers got the arch up to code by building bigger anchors and driving the anchors’ poles farther into the ground. The arch now serves to draw even more attention to the neighbors’ yards—and to the friendly war that, despite the unifying piece of steel, wages on.

The homeowners’ association competition has been discontinued this year. But both Wiechers and DelGiudice are confident that they can win the City of Sparks prize.

“I think my whole friggin’ yard’s better,” DelGiudice says when asked to name his display’s dominant element.

Jim and Julie Harris and their sons, Nick, Alec and Jake, are making a Christmas decoration viewing pilgrimage the Sunday night after Thanksgiving. Residents of Spanish Springs, the Harris family drives up Cordoba every Christmas to see what Wiechers and DelGiudice have done. This year, they say, is probably the best, although, as Julie points out, “The year with the Grinch was amazing.”

Julie thinks that the Wiechers’ residence may be just a little more impressive than the DelGiudices’ this year.

From the backseat, an equitable Harris boy chimes in, “I like them both.”

Even early in the game, before everything is up, sightseers are making the trek up the street, crawling by in their cars, turning around at the top of the street, and driving by again. Come the first weekend in December, the Wiechers and DelGiudices hand out candy canes to passersby every Friday and Saturday night. On nights they carry on the candy cane tradition, cars are backed up at times for a half-mile down the road, waiting to see the displays, get a candy cane, put a letter to Santa in the box located in front of DelGiudice’s yard, drop non-perishables for the needy into a Food Bank barrel located in front of Wiechers’ yard, or guess the number of lights in the arch. (The person with the best guess will receive a fancy Blade XTR Lite scooter, donated by Wiechers’ scooter company, WTD Imaginary.)

This army of blow molds in Jeff DelGiudice’s yard is prepared for a long, ntense battle against the blow molds across the street.

Photo by David Robert

“I like to watch people drive by,” says Wiechers’ niece and helper, 15-year-old Kerry Coppini. “[They ask], ‘How did you get so many lights?’ “

“And, ‘What’s your electricity bill,” DelGiudice adds. It’s about $200 more in December.

“Depending on how long the line [of cars] is, they turn around and come back,” says Sherri DelGiudice. “I think people have caught on that every year [Wiechers] does something different.”

“We have quite a few people actually stop, park up the road and come down,” Janet adds. “We have a wood burning stove. We park it down on the sidewalk, stand down there, keep warm and wave at the passersby.”

Some nights, she says, both families barbecue down on the curb. Sightseers park and come over to share the food and beer, mingling with the two families and their hoards of helpers and admiring friends.

“We have a real good neighbors,” DelGiudice says. “We blast Christmas music. Then, Eminem comes on about midnight. You can only listen to ‘Jingle Bells’ for so long.”

Increasingly, neighbors are doing more than just enjoying the Wiechers-DelGiudice displays.

“The coolest thing about this is we’ve got neighbors who haven’t put up lights before [who are now] putting up lights,” Sherri says.

Both couples admit that when they were children, their families didn’t do much decorating during the holidays. Janet says that her family was more into appreciating the displays of others. Still, family light pilgrimages were magical times for her.

“I don’t know what it is about lights, but they’re just mesmerizing,” she says. “Especially at Christmas time. It’s cold, and you’re standing in a couple feet of snow, but you could be staring at a house like Jeff’s, with a million lights, and you just feel warm. It doesn’t feel so dark and dreary anymore.”

And the more lights that go up on Cordoba Boulevard, the more opportunity DelGiudice will have to peer through his window and discover a new friendly foe.

“I want somebody to try to steal my thunder," DelGiudice jokes. "If I run out of money [for decorations], I would get a second mortgage on my house."