Observing the lights of Riley — all 35,000 of them

You won’t need directions to find the home of George Riley on Rowland Street in the town of Milton.
Patricia and George Riley flank a Nativity scene at their Milton home, which is part of a huge holiday lighting display.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Patricia and George Riley flank a Nativity scene at their Milton home, which is part of a huge holiday lighting display.

Once upon a time, you could hang a wreath on the front door and call yourself festive.

In the 1970s, decking the halls meant stringing a set of large clunky lights over the top of the garage or standing a plastic snowman on the front porch. The 1980s brought the dawn of mini-lights and snowmen that waved a creaky robotic arm at people driving by. A handful of brave dads climbed ladders to the rooftop to set up a sleigh and hope it didn’t blow down before Christmas Eve, or scare the real Santa away.

Welcome to the new century, when holiday revelers create theatrical sets in their yards, complete with self-inflating snow globes, grazing deer, singing Santas, pink palm trees, trains with chugging wheels, polar bears playing in igloos, elves packing presents and clocks ticking down the minutes until the New Year.

Who needs to take a trip to New York City for spectacular sights and sounds, when so much front yard merriment is available around the Capital Region?

You won’t need directions to find the home of George Riley on Rowland Street in the town of Milton. Just do as the wise men did and follow the glow in the midnight sky. Riley’s more than 35,000 lights strung on his house, roof, bushes, tree branches and lamp posts, and his collection of holiday characters light up the night, as do the headlights of cars lining up to cruise by and gape.

“We get a lot of traffic on our tiny road,” Riley said with unabashed satisfaction. “People stop to take pictures. They pull into our driveway and let the kids out to walk around and look at everything. The only thing I tell them is to watch out for the extension cords.”

That would be the 65 extension cords running in a careful grid to power up the dozens of decorations.

“It’s really well-organized as far as the circuits,” Riley said. “Safety is my main concern.”

For more than 25 years, Riley has been setting aside about 10 days to create his extravaganza, which includes rows of candy canes as tall as humans, choir boys, Frosty, lights on a wishing well, Rudolph with a blindingly red nose, an enormous North Star, a moving carousel and a Nativity scene. One of the hallmarks of Riley’s display is a huge red circle of lights on his roof displaying the new year 2009.

“I started putting the year up there when it turned 2000, and it was something unique that people liked, so I kept going,” Riley said. “Really, I’m amazed to be putting up the year 2009.”

The desire to share the holiday spirit is what keeps Riley going as he plans and executes his designs. An electrical contractor by trade, Riley works on his display for one entire weekend followed by several evenings after work. One of the greatest challenges is setting the 11 timers to ease the burden on circuits after nightfall.

“The displays go on within 10 minutes of one another until they’re all lit; any more than that would blow the fuses,” Riley said.

After the timers go off, the display is in its full glory from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. nightly. Riley estimates the added electrical costs to run the display is about $150 to $200 per year.

Impressing grandkids

Riley said he caught the decorating bug when his children were young and now loves to impress his grandchildren, Jonathan, 11, and Kaydence, 4.

“They think their grandpa’s nuts,” Riley said.

If the blazing lights don’t signal your arrival at George’s house, look for the enormous lit sign “The Rileys” at the front of their yard.

Riley said he has heralded the arrival of more decorating supplies in stores large and small.

“Everyone from the little hardware stores to the big retailers has lights for sale, or you can even go online for specialty items,” Riley said. “I remember having to replace a whole string if one bulb went out, or we even used to sit for hours and replace the bulbs. That’s not the case now.”

Riley said the interior of his home is as hyper-decorated as his front yard.

“Christmas means happy times when you think of family and friends,” Riley said. “You put your worries away; just pack them up for a month. We’ve had family members who were sick this year, so this year we have more to be thankful for that we’re still all together. We have big families, so we have two parties with about 50 people at each one.”

Come the second week in January, Riley will begin the task of dismantling his masterpiece.

“That’s not a happy time,” said Riley, who built two sheds in which to store his treasures.

Not to be outdone

Across town on Outlet Road near Ballston Lake, Dana Mahoutchian celebrates both Halloween and Christmas with a full-scale display on their property, including the front and back yards.

In early October, Mahoutchian has filled her front yard with ferocious creatures including a ghoulish family dining on severed heads at a formal table and chairs, as well as flying bats, vampires and ghosts. By Thanksgiving, Mahoutchian has transformed the scene into Holiday Central, with stacks of glowing presents, Santa and his sleigh landing in a tree, a train giving off steam, a playhouse decorated like a gingerbread cottage and a four-foot Victorian angel by the front door. But there’s more out back, where a large yard has been turned into the Arctic scene, with penguins, polar bears, seals and ice caps.

“I run a day care, so everything I do is for the kids to play on,” Mahoutchian said. “When it snows, I go out back with a shovel and dig out a huge maze for them to climb through. They play out there for hours.”

Since she lives on a curvy road in a rather desolate area, Mahoutchian tries to set out enough lights to attract a steady stream of admirers.

“It’s so dark out here with no street lights, so the colored lights glow really bright,” Mahoutchian said. “I get a few holiday cards in my mailbox every year from people expressing their appreciation for the display and saying they come by every year.”

Although she has five children, Mahoutchian enjoys doing all the work herself.

“I love to be outside and stay active,” Mahoutchian said. “I’m always waiting for a good snowstorm. My favorite year was the season we got 33 inches.”

If you haven’t come up with a plan for your own winter wonderland, hang a wreath on the front door, and think about adding a motion-activated Santa to the porch to belt out “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” to anyone who comes to your door. It’s never too late to catch Christmas fever.

Categories: Life and Arts

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