NORMAL – A light nativity scene appeared first.
And later a snowman and penguins.
What started in the early 90s as an exhibition of some holiday decorations and lights for Mike Holtz has exploded into a mesmerizing Christmas staple, generating viral videos and photos on Facebook, Twitter and now TikTok.
“For years it wasn’t that bad,” the 61-year-old Normal resident said in a recent interview with The Pantagraph. “I felt like I was giving something back to people. The kids are probably the most important thing. If you look out the window and you see the little kids here, that makes you feel good.”
For two decades, Holtz’s home at 1210 W. Hovey Ave. to Normal served as a popular destination when driving through the Twin Cities in search of Christmas lights.
About 900 bright vintage blow-molded outdoor decorations fill Holtz’s yard and clamber up the trees and walls of his home. Those driving by might spot rows of candy canes, gingerbread men, Santa and his reindeer, snowmen and yes, even an alien or two — or five.
And that’s not even all. About 1,000 additional miniatures are stored in the attic of his garage and in sheds behind his house.
“I’ve always loved having other people’s homes decorated,” Holtz said. “Every year (Christmas) came around, and probably in the 90s, I started seeing this stuff at garage sales for 50 cents or a dollar, so I started buying more and more.
“Then it continued. I just wanted to have Christmas decorations and Christmas lights, and I guess you could say I was obsessed with that.”
Millions of views
Holtz isn’t very active on the internet, but over the years his impressive display has reached millions of people around the world. Three or four years ago, a photo of the house went viral on Facebook, reaching around 32 million people.
More recently Lindsey Miller, 35, of Normal, uploaded a video of her and her family walking past the house on popular social media app TikTok. The video, to the tune of “It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas”, showed the house in all its glory at night with all the decorations lit up. Within days, it reached around 1.5 million people.
“He’s been doing this since I was little,” Miller told the Pantagraph. “My family and I drive past there every year. It doesn’t feel like Christmas is actually happening until he decorates his house.”
Since posting the video on TikTok, Miller has been inundated with questions about the house, how and why Holtz got started, where the decorations came from and, most pressing, how high his electric bill is.
He was even asked to re-upload the video with different variations of Christmas songs and popular TikTok “sounds”, some of which garnered up to 2.4 million views.
“It’s extreme, but overall I think people are pretty hypnotized by it,” she said. “This is my favorite Christmas house here in town. There are a few other good ones, but hers is by far the standout when it comes to displays.”
In response to viewer questions, Holtz said about 30 percent of his collection was donated to him and about 40 percent he purchased by going to garage and estate sales.
While he doesn’t know the year of the decorations or how old they are, he said blow molded light decorations are rare these days and can cost a few hundred dollars in some places.
Before inflation, having his Christmas lights on from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day would add another $140 to his electric bill, but this year he estimates it at around $150. It uses energy-efficient light bulbs to cut costs, he said.
After the first few years of taking decorations out and flying them, he began to erect a fence around his yard. It’s not all year round; it’s just to keep people from taking the decorations as much as possible, he said.
As he got older, Holtz said it became increasingly difficult to get everything out of his garage. Two of his adult sons help him from time to time. This year, he started installing lights in September.
“What I get here in the main court is probably most of my favorites,” Holtz said.
To prevent fires and other mishaps, there are electrical boxes at the four corners of the house with five different circuits. The result is a system of electrical cords and extension cords to connect everything together. There was only one incident when one of the boxes hanging from the trees caught fire. The blaze was immediately spotted by a neighbor.
“It’s like an arterial system,” he said. “I try to separate as many things per circuit so I don’t blow fuses. Now I’ve had trouble, but it’s usually from squirrels. Squirrels and rabbits gnaw on the cords.”
There are five alien decorations on the property – two in the tree and three scattered around the house in various hiding places. The lights became something of a joke for Holtz.
He remembers being asked by a Pantagraph reporter where the aliens were after he started removing decorations after Christmas Day. Holtz replied, “You wouldn’t believe it. On Christmas Day I came here and they were gone. I think the mothership took them.”
Seriously, he said, “But think about it. Have you ever heard someone say that Christmas is just an earthly thing? It could be a universal thing. That’s why I put them there .”
About these urban legends
Over the years, the story behind Holtz’s decorations and their origin has become something of an urban legend. Some rumors suggested he had a sick child, or a neighbor had a sick child, and he was just trying to spread some holiday cheer.
In fact, decorating really picked up speed in 2001 when Pantagraph columnist Bill Flick hosted the first “Flick Litest Christmas Lighting Contest.” Around this time, Holtz and his neighbor across the street got into a kind of Christmas lights war.
“He covered his whole house in lights, I had all this plastic and these lights here — I didn’t have as many as I do now,” Holtz said. “It became a competition because they had this contest, and they wanted to win and I wanted to win. It was like we were adding stuff every night and every day, and she would send him off to buy more lights .
That year, Holtz became the first “Flick Litest” winner, getting $500 and a “5-foot lighted facsimile of Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick Flick,” according to Pantagraph records. The contest actually had a three-way tie for the first of 13 entrants, but the judges ultimately awarded the prize to Holtz and his family.
“Of all the houses in this town, and there are a lot, there’s only one that makes my jaw drop every time and that’s Mike’s house,” Flick said. “He’s the spirit of Christmas in my world. Even though some people don’t like what he does or people like what he does, he’s the epitome of what Christmas should be.”
Starting on Thanksgiving Day, people can walk past Holtz’s house to watch the lights. It usually has the screen on from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., or until 11 p.m. closer to Christmas.
Holtz said, “The only night he stays is Christmas Eve because you have to make sure Santa sees him.”
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Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.