UPDATE: Since December 19, the lights have been on. The family wrote“We are SO EXCITED to announce that we have completed the Garabedian Christmas House! Please come and enjoy our hard work with your loved ones! The lights turn on around 5 p.m. every night.”
An army of models, even dressed in ornate evening wear, doesn’t shout Christmas – not in a language I can understand. Faced with a sea of painted smiles and stiff plastic limbs frozen in an endless waltz, a person may understandably feel confusion, definitely unease, perhaps even fear. After all, Santa’s hand – his network of veins, his knotted knuckles – just seems too realistic to come from anything other than the body of a real human. And yet, for 45 years, a family in the Bronx has been decorating their mannequin house to celebrate the Yuletide season, creating eerie tableaux that have made Garabedian’s Christmas house an unlikely holiday tradition.
Perhaps you have heard of the Garabedian Christmas House, encountered its inimitable brilliance on the pages of local media pages. Perhaps you looked at his glistening bubblegum exterior, his thick model coat, and wondered what was going through the minds that saw this as a fitting festive tribute. I’ve been stewing over this same question, but unfortunately my quest for answers has hit a big dead end. Gary Garabedian, the caretaker of the Christmas House, has proven difficult to reach this year. Other media described him as “cherub” and glittery, a jovial man apparently eager to discuss his work. Unfortunately, I can’t independently confirm anything, as Gary – or the person attached to the number I found for him – hasn’t returned my calls.
Based on other reports, however, I know that the Garabedians conceptualized their garish display as a direct response to a miracle God supposedly performed for the family on Christmas Eve in 1973. Gary steadfastly refused to divulge any details about the nature of this sacred event, tell the NY Times only, “It’s our way of thanking the Lord for what He has done for us.” And so they gave God a house that”literally comes to life“between Thanksgiving and New Years: a baby Jesus resting on the roof, the traditional nativity scene flanked by a chorus line of Rockette who happily kicks; Liberace who cranks out tunes on his grand piano, presumably to the pairs spinning mechanically on the red carpet surrounding the house; Cinderella’s cage-like carriage charging through a field of animatronic movie stars.
Here’s what we know: the late family matriarch, Nelly Garabedian, worked as a seamstress and originally designed this tribute as a smaller scale doll display in 1974. It has grown every year since, as the family learned to make their own mannequins from the local priest (now deceased). They spend summers molding fiberglass into custom human shapes, usually based on celebrities, some of whom get motors to be able to move. I can’t say how the family decides which famous faces to add and which to remove each year, but I’ve read that they store their creations at Gary’s brother’s house upstate. Let’s pause for a second on this point: a room full of almost 200 lifeless but strangely realistic characterssome sheathed in plastic bags as if recently suffocated.
Although Nelly passed away in 2007, Gary picked up her torch and continued to carry it forward. This year, however, its light has faded. On December 3, we noticed a disclaimer posted on the house’s Facebook page. “We had a delay in finishing the Christmas house; however, we hope the house will be ready soon! reads a post written 11 days after Thanksgiving, the day the full panorama traditionally makes its seasonal debut. “We’ll post a message on Facebook when the house is officially ready. Thank you for your continued love and support.” At the time of writing, with just under two weeks until Christmas, no updates have been released.
Undaunted, we continued our search for answers. Gothamist photographer Tod Seelie visited 1605 Pelham Parkway on December 5 and upon arrival confirmed the sad truth: the house was only half finished, and besides, its owners didn’t even seem like a reluctant to discuss the delay. “We were able to get the owners’ attention through a window to ask if they could turn the lights on briefly, and we were answered with an abrupt lowering of the (admittedly festive) shades,” Seelie reported in the filing. his photos, seen above. .
And so we tried again: Along with WNYC producer Andres O’Hara, I drove to the Christmas house the next day, hoping that even though the facade looked like a shadow of its usual between-holiday self, we might still be able to seek information from the owners. At least an explanation as to why they had slowed down this year. (Although, I will say, the aesthetic scheme in all its typical glory seems like a Herculean undertaking to install, and I resent an uncharitably demanding speed.) But when we got there, we found the screen to be mostly dark.
Certainly, the nativity scene on the roof stood in its usual place, its scale hugely variable and disorienting. The piano was out, Santa Claus and his sleigh were out, but all the mannequins – save for the religious figures, two sets of Alvin and the Chipmunks and a horde of child-sized cherubs – were standing parked in a darkened room, silhouetted against the sole scorching light in the kitchen and looking like guests at a spooky surprise party. The red carpet, strewn with leaves and stray power cords, looked sad; the overturned ladder that crossed the patio evoked abandonment; a padlock hanging around the door was facing outward, as if to whisper “abduction”.
Inside the house, you could see a sewing station strewn with fabric, a mannequin leaning against the wall with its limbs bent at angles, but not a single moving human. The doorbell didn’t ring for anyone.
And so we are left with a haunting Christmas mystery. Is this the end of the Garabedian Christmas House? Is Christmas cancelled? Who will take care of the dolls once their duty is done? Or maybe we should ask who the dolls will support their keep?