There is something magical about slowly ambling down an unfamiliar street in a car as the sky becomes dark, turning the corner and being overwhelmed by an extravagant, over-the-top Christmas display complete with music echoing throughout the neighborhood, and realizing that you did indeed turn onto the right street.
Picture a house so extraordinary that could belong at a Disneyland theme park, with its 200,000-light-bulb display and 44,000 visitors in one season alone. This is Ed Rombeiro’s creation, and he has been putting it up at his Novato house for 25 years.
While decorating the outside of the house in such beautiful detail is a huge undertaking in itself, the Rombeiro family goes the extra mile in their yearly display by completely covering the inside of their house and opening it up to the public.
“The open house was something done, not by a mistake, but it wasn’t supposed to happen. My dad saw this young family outside 25 years ago and said ‘Oh, come in,’ and here we are,” said Kathy Rombeiro, Ed’s daughter.
Each incredibly detailed room is furnished with a variety of holiday-themed trinkets and toys, from a wall of moving Santas to an exquisite, gleaming angel scene. The only way the Rombeiros’ house could be more awe-inspiring would be if Santa himself were present―except he is, in the form of Ed Rombeiro, who dresses up in a red hat and shirt, greeting every guest with a warm smile as they walk inside.
The Rombeiros are not the only extreme Christmas decorators in Marin by any means. If there is such a thing as a veteran of the Christmas decorating scene, Roy Nisja is perhaps the most qualified of his kind. He and his son, Donn, have been putting on a front lawn display in their San Rafael home for 37 years. Several of the decorations are cut out of plywood and hand painted by the family themselves.
“The cutouts that you see on the lawn, everything from the big train station to the Christmas moose, ornaments, anything that’s wood that’s cut out, [my son] cut them out and he and his wife hand-painted them. This is not a store-bought display in any way, shape, or form,” Nisja said.
Redwood sophomore Luca Traverso and his family also have their own yearly special Christmas display, and while it may not be quite as elaborate as the previous houses, it surely surpasses your traditional holiday decorations.
The lawn is packed with blow-up Santas, Disney characters, color-changing lights and glowing candy canes that light up the walkway. For the Traversos, the spirit of Christmas and the joy that it brings to people’s faces are the main reasons why they take the time to set it up each year.
“We have lights for other holidays like Halloween and things, but it’s not the same. [The display] gives a certain vibe. It’s just so joyful and happy and I think that with our lights you just get in the Christmas spirit a little bit more,” Traverso said.
This motivation of putting others in the holiday spirit also rings true for the Nisjas and Rombeiros, who are so dedicated that they start setting up two and four months in advance, respectively.
“My son summed it all up, to put it in one sentence. We were taking [the display] down and it was a misty day, and I said ‘This is a lot of work.’ And my son said, ‘Yeah dad, but you know, we made a lot of people happy.’ What else can you say?” Nisja said.
Nisja explained that his son was the true reason for starting the spectacular annual decorations.
“I had a 4×8 sheet of plywood left from re-roofing my garage and my son came in one day in the fall of 1980 and asked if he could use it, and I said ‘What for?’ and he said he wanted to make a snowman and put it in front of the house,” Nisja said.
Ever since then, the decorations at the Nisja house have been growing in scale and in wow-factor, leading it to eventually be known as the “Bear House” within the neighborhood.
“At the time I was selling a line of plush animals, mostly bears. I had a lot of samples, and you’re through selling before Thanksgiving. So, he asked me if he could used the samples in the display in front and I said, ‘Yeah, just don’t mess them up,’ and that’s what he did,” Nisja said. “That’s basically how it became the Bear House.”
According to Nisja, one of the most loved aspects of his display is the teddy bear that can blow its own bubbles, another one of his son’s creations.
“He comes walking in, he’s got a bear about three feet high. I said ‘Donn, what are you going to do with another bear?’ He says ‘Oh I’m gonna make it blow bubbles dad,’ and I said, ‘Ok’ and went back to reading the paper,” Nisja said. “Forty-eight hours later that bear was sitting on a log in front of the house blowing bubbles, and that has been a real tradition.”
However, not everything about extreme Christmas decorating is fun and games. It is hard and frustrating work to get the display setup, and other factors, such as a noteworthy rise in the electricity bill, are hassles that come along with the joy of the lights, according to Nisja and Traverso.
“[The electricity bill] more than doubles in this time of the year. And I have resisted going to the LED lights because I don’t like them as much. The color is cooler, they’re not warm. It would be cheaper… I may be going to those soon,” said Gary Traverso, Luca’s dad.
However, the smiles and sparkling eyes that result from these one-of-a-kind, beautiful displays far outweigh the struggles of setting them up and taking them down. Meant to be admired and spread holiday spirit and cheer to everyone, the decorations of the Rombeiros, Nisjas and Traversos will remain in the minds and hearts of many for years to come.