SCHENECTADY – One early afternoon last week, Samantha and Dion Bagnato sat in the living room of their Victorian cottage at 2532 Van Vranken Ave. in Schenectady and explained why they go to such great lengths.
— Why they spend a few days a month — every month, all 12, without fail — taking down one holiday’s (or theme’s) decorations and changing over to another, lighting up the front of their home for motorists and pedestrians to enjoy.
— Why they’ve been doing it for more than 40 years, and continue to enjoy it.
— And, as Dion explains, why it tends to get bigger every year.
If you drive by their home for the next few weeks, you’ll see their colorful Easter display, with large plastic eggs hanging from branches and, at night, purple lights illuminating the yard and house.
What’s so endearing is that these aren’t high-tech, stop-you-in your-tracks decorations. These are traditional displays, crafted from Samantha’s clever sense of design and Dion’s design, landscaping and electrical experience.
They’re created from materials often bought during the off-season or right after a holiday ends, when prices are low or on closeout.
So, why then?
“We’re proud of Schenectady,” said Dion. “We’re proud of living in Schenectady. We’re proud of our neighborhood and we’re proud of the fact that people appreciate it. The ‘why’ is relatively simple. We believe in Schenectady.”
“We grew up here,” said Samantha.
And they did much more than that.
Samantha taught fashion design and merchandising for many years at Mont Pleasant High School and Linton High School and later at the Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) in Colonie. She started her teaching career in 1971 and retired in 2001. She also ran Samantha’s Sewing Room on Van Vranken Avenue from 1985 to 1992 as a second job, working on wedding gowns, alterations and more.
Dion taught science and math in the Shenendehowa Central School District from 1970 to 2015 in middle and elementary schools. And for 30-plus years he ran Spring Fever Landscaping in Schenectady during the summers.
“Every summer he was miserable; he didn’t have enough to do,” said Samantha. “He went to the library and got some books on landscaping and he said ‘I’m going to do this, but I can’t do it right now because I have to have a rototiller and a decent lawnmower and we can’t afford that right now.’
“So all winter long I did alterations and I would put the money in an envelope,” she said.
Months later, she handed him the envelope with money for the equipment, bringing tears to his eyes. He made a promise to earn the money back and make a profit.
And the name for the business?
“I said to him that you always say you have spring fever, so you might as well call it that, and he did,” Samantha recalled.
The decorating also started decades ago.
“The first year we did the front porch with the pillars with plastic ribbon to look like candy canes and we had a wreath and an artificial tree,” said Samantha. “It was just added to year after year.
“We’d find something that was on sale during the summer that was Christmassy, and we’d buy it and put it away ‘til Christmastime.”
Samantha also had collected an abundance of items for her classes from second-hand stores, flea markets and other sources that they could use to decorate. Many of those adorn the 3-by-7-foot shrub covers in front of the house.
Dion tells the stories of the large Easter eggs and the huge sugar pine cones.
“At the end of each season there are available display materials that you can acquire for a nominal cost,” he said.
They noticed one year that the Glenville Price Chopper had “huge sugar pine cones” for sale as part of arrangements. “Not one of them sold,” he said, noting that they were possibly scheduled for disposal the day after Christmas.
“On the 26th, we showed up at 7 a.m. and we bought them all for $2 apiece. We wound up with 24 of them,” he said, smiling.
Another year, they noticed that Michaels craft store had huge plastic Easter eggs for sale, with two smaller eggs inside each large egg. “They were marked at $34 for the set,” said Dion. “We bought 14 of them the day after Easter for $2 apiece.
“We thought, if these will work, and they bring someone joy, we can pass them forward.”
The 12 displays
Their holiday displays change at the end of every month and stay up through the month. Here are the monthly themes:
— January: Silver and snowflakes
— February: Valentine’s Day, with red lighting
— March: St. Patrick’s Day, all in green
— April: Easter. Dion discovered if you beam red and blue floodlights together, you get purple
— May: Lily of the valley flowers
— June: Roses
— July: The Fourth of July and patriotism, everything in red, white and blue
— August: Sunflowers
— September: Apples, and back-to-school
— October: Halloween, with pumpkins and ornamental kale (from Schoharie) lining the walkway
— November: Thanksgiving, cornstalks, large pumpkins, large gourds, scarecrow
— December: Christmas
Change of seasons
After Easter, annuals and perennials share the spotlight along the walkway, the front foundation and in the “snowshed,” the area between the sidewalk and road.
In the snowshed, Dion digs holes for three large pots that act as “sleeves” for smaller pots of decorations to go into. Before big snowstorms he removes the pots with the decorations, and then after the storm digs out the holes and puts them back.
In the summer they grow begonias (six different colors), lily of the valley, large red cana, impatiens, petunias, hydrangea (“Endless Summer” variety) and more. They have two crimson king maple trees and a Japanese maple.
A few odds and ends about their decorations:
— Theft or loss has not been a problem, unless you count the small reindeer that blew over this Christmas and was never found. The bright lights and security system are deterrents to mischief.
— Dion uses 100-watt LED floodlights on the yard and house, 22 in all, controlled by photocell timers. The Bagnatos moved into the house in 1976 (it was built in 1903). They have since upgraded the electrical system.
— Everything is securely fastened. “This was a learning, evolving lesson,” said Dion. “We learned over time that everything has to be secure, everything had to be checked.” Things are pinned down with erosion staples. Many light fixtures are mounted on rebar.
— How long does it take? “A display like this takes a day and a half,” said Dion.
— Storage is a whole other deal. “You have to maintain [the decorations], put them away and keep them dry,” said Dion. They have dozens of 3-foot-long storage boxes with lids that are labeled by the season.
Besides their pride in Schenectady, the Bagnatos, now both in their 70s, say they enjoy the tradition of decorating.
Dion says that, as teachers, “we both learned it was important to lead by positive example. You had to put in the time to make things presentable, and we were encouraged by people who enjoyed it.”
“There were people who complimented us on the work and that inspired us to do it,” said Samantha. “It started out where people would drive by and honk their horns and put thumbs up in the car and then people would stop by and say, ‘Your house looks so good.’ ”
“We’ve had occasions where people would visit us up on the porch,” said Dion. “An older lady who comes from Clifton Park to go to the doctor came up, rang the bell, gave us some candy and thanked us for the display.
“And we received an anonymous letter expressing the joy we bring to people passing by.”
They also hang a banner from the porch thanking essential workers.
“About two months ago, a woman parked across the street and took photos,” said Dion. “She said she was a nurse from Ellis Hospital and appreciated our banner.”
Because of COVID, Dion said these past two years have been the most difficult because they couldn’t entertain at their home and things were more subdued.
But that hasn’t stopped them.
“It’s for fun and enjoyment,” said Samantha.
“It’s tradition,” added Dion. “The idea that people have traditions and can share them with other people.”
And as Samantha was quick to note, “As long as we can manage it, we will always do something.”
Note: The Bagnatos’ home is situated on the northeast end of Van Vranken Avenue, just before it turns into Aqueduct Road in Niskayuna.