On a cool evening early in November, the modest home on the corner of Washington and 12 Mile looks like any other in Royal Oak. The yard, distinguished by a white picket fence and simple landscaping, betrays no clue that it is the annual scene of one of the most extravagant Christmas displays in the area.
As in years past, beginning Dec. 1, the front yard of the home at 1713 Washington will be transformed from typical suburban lawn into a little slice of North Pole heaven.
Ethlyn Unger recalls the day, more than a decade ago, when she finally acquiesced to the pleas of her husband, John, to extend the boundaries of their already extravagant holiday display.
“’All right,’ I said, ‘you can take it to 12 Mile, but keep it simple.’”
Sugary lights in a rainbow of colors seem to fill every inch of open space, while animated holiday characters move, with none-too-human gestures, in every front window. There is an angel choir, snowmen, a gingerbread house and the man himself, Santa Claus. The frothy glow of lights can be seen for blocks, and the narrow neighborhood street is lined with more slow-moving gawkers than a 10-car pileup.
“John begins sorting decorations weeks before Thanksgiving,” Ethlyn explains, noting that it takes about a month to get everything up and running. The Ungers’ eight children and 20 grandchildren usually gather at home for Thanksgiving — and to help set up the display. They abide by a strict, “in order to eat, everybody must work” policy, Ethlyn says.
Grandson Matthew, 10, recalls how they “fill the wheelbarrow up with decorations and cart a whole bunch of lights out into the yard” where the strings are sorted by a team of other family members. One year, a cherry picker was employed to get decorations on the roof and trees.
The Ungers don’t like to discuss the cost associated with decorating their home — they say that’s not what the season is about.
They are strict do-it-yourselfers. People who pay to have a service come and decorate their homes don’t get it, Ethlyn says: “They miss it. They miss the meaning of Christmas.”
For the Ungers, Christmas is a year-round event.
“He never throws a decoration away,” says Ethlyn with more than a hint of exasperation. “Our living room becomes a kind of storage area, because he spends the whole summer going through the decorations and checking every bulb.
“People will say to me, ‘How many Santas you got up there?’ and I can never answer because I honestly don’t know.”
Many kids from Royal Oak and surrounding communities remember being bundled into the car by parents desperate for a cheap holiday excursion and driven past the Ungers’ candy-colored Christmas light show.
“You do something new, you rearrange it, make it look different, and people come up and say, ‘Boy, that wasn’t there, that was somewhere else.’ They really know,” says John, the mastermind behind the outdoor display.
Ethlyn is in charge of decorating the interior of the house with her numerous animatronic Christmas characters. One large room serves as a storage space in the off-season for the dolls that crowd together on shelves designed specifically to hold them. There are rosy-cheeked Santas, lushly bundled Victorian carolers, Disney characters and babies dressed in bunny suits. When plugged in, the dolls show an extraordinary, albeit unnatural, range of movement as they jerk their heads and extremities in time with the cacophony of tinny Christmas songs issuing from their bodies.
Ethlyn says J.L. Hudson’s department store was a place that really knew how to do Christmas.
“You’d go to the Thanksgiving Day parade then you’d go to Hudson’s, and everything was all decorated, as though someone had come in the middle of the night and done it all up,” she says.
Two especially surprised-looking elves, dressed in green velvet, were purchased directly from the window display at the old downtown Hudson’s.
Many other decorations, such as evergreen wreaths and garlands, are made by Ethlyn. Still others were gifts from family and friends.
One morning, the Ungers awoke to find a pair of caroler statuettes in the driveway, ready for display, apparently left by some admirers.
Don’t think that the Ungers are all show and no tell. They usually offer tours of their home in December. People are welcomed inside and given some small homemade gift before they leave.
“Last year I gave out ‘Snowman Soup,’ the year before that was Reindeer Feed, and one year I gave out something I called Angel Dust, but that was a little touchy,” Ethlyn says with a laugh. “ The woman at the copy place said, ‘Angel Dust? Are you sure you want that many copies of this poem?’ I never thought about the connotation.”
For the home tours, one of their sons-in-law dresses up as an elf, and John dons his Santa costume to lead tours and pass out the small gifts. They love sharing their display with friends, neighbors and even complete strangers. John recalls the year a couple of autistic children toured their home. “They couldn’t really tell what it was, but they understood the lights and thought they were beautiful,” he says.
For all the extravagance of the display, the Ungers are especially proud of the fact that they own only two decorations purchased from Bronner’s, the notorious Christmas behemoth in Frankenmuth. The Bronner’s company is perhaps the greatest example of Christmas excess, offering anything from “God Bless America Santa” to an 85-foot-long Christmas barge composed of wire and lights for $21,000.
“Yeah, our lights are commercial,” says Ethlyn, “but that is not what Christmas is all about. That’s what I want to teach my kids. It’s about us doing it all together and making decorations ourselves that makes the season so special.”
Elaborate Christmas displays are not an invention of our consumerist age, but began with the Victorians. Following the example set by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, people began decorating lavishly for the holiday and purchasing piles of gifts for loved ones. In an age when products were becoming mass-produced, nearly everyone could afford to decorate and buy gifts for friends and families.
Still, Ethlyn Unger sees decorating as a celebration of family, not consumption.
“Christmas is not about the gifts,” she says. “It’s about making it happen together. I think it came from both John and I growing up poor. ... We may not have had money for presents, but our families always managed to decorate.”Domenique Osborne is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]