From left, neighbors Luigi and Juana Guarino and Joan and Craig Amsden enjoy decorating their homes for the holidays.
By Rich Fahey
Juana Guarino was happy but sore at the end of a recent Sunday spent decorating her home at 16 Lynn Fells Parkway in Saugus. Since 2006, she and husband, Luigi, have spent weeks in September, October and November on the decorations for their home, which includes thousands of lights as well as characters such as Big Bird and Mickey Mouse. The pace gets intense in the weeks before Thanksgiving.
At the same time, a little more than a mile up the road, Michael Conlon is readying his breathtaking display at 401 Lynn Fells Parkway, which annually draws visitors from as far as Cape Cod, Connecticut and New Hampshire. It features more than 100,000 lights, which Conlon calls “a conservative estimate,” because the actual number is impossible to tell. Each year, he purchases about 500 new sets of lights to replace the ones that have burnt out.
For many years after World War II, the competition was fierce in the Saugus neighborhood; in fact, homeowners would even join formal and informal competitions to determine who had the best display.
The area’s lighting tradition went hand-in-hand with the development of the Lynn Fells Parkway, a road designed at the turn of the 20th Century by celebrated landscape architects Charles Eliot and brothers Charles and Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the Emerald Necklace around Greater Boston. The parkway serves as a connector between the Middlesex Fells Reservation and the Breakheart Reservation, and was originally planned to extend all the way to the Lynn Woods Reservation, another Olmsted creation.
The Fellways was once a long stretch of farmland and forests, but development began in earnest in the 1940s and early 1950s, when returning vets armed with GI Bill mortgages purchased the new homes. In the Lynn Fells area, many families moved from East Boston and the North End.
And while the number of homes with large displays has declined in recent years, those who still participate are in with both feet, spending many weeks and dollars transforming their homes into Christmas wonderlands.
The Guarinos decorate for others—and themselves.
“My husband is like a big kid,” says Juana, who met Luigi when the native of Italy and his family moved to her native Argentina.
The couple has been married for 47 years. It was after they moved to Malden (their home before coming to Saugus), that they saw how beautiful Christmas could be. And when they saw the displays of some of their neighbors upon getting to Saugus, they were inspired. Now the Guarinos’ display is lit starting Thanksgiving Day at dusk, and is lit each evening until 11 p.m., except for the week before Christmas, when the lights don’t dim until 1 a.m. Is that a problem with the neighbors?
“They love it just as much as we do,” Juana said.
The decorations now fill two sheds and a garage on their property. The very first year they decorated, the Guarinos saw results.
“We started getting buses of senior citizens,” Juana said.
Their home was featured on several radio stations and each year the crowds coming by began to grow.
“Even if I complain about the work, I love it,” Juana said.
The Guarinos share a driveway—and a love of Christmas—with their neighbors, Craig and Joan Amsden, who live at 22 Lynn Fells Parkway.
Craig, Joan and their son, John, have been decorating their home for about the same length of time as the Guarinos. A popular addition to the display has been the temporary bridge John built over the brook near their home last year. This year the bridge has stairs and is all lit up. Santa Claus is in town, of course, and his 7-foot reindeer are also in the house. Joan has changed some of the patterns of lights, finding she likes it better when she lights the perimeters of her lawn instead of the interior.
“Did you know you can only put about 300 lights in an outlet before you trip the circuit breaker?” Joan said. “You learn a lot through the years.”
She also admitted the work can be tiresome and the lights and electricity expensive, but she wouldn’t want to disappoint those visitors who come to the neighborhood and have come to expect a show from Thanksgiving evening until a day or two after New Year’s Day.
“We’re kind of locked into it now,” she said.
At the home of Conlon, a phone call in late October found him knee-deep in gussying up his home for the 17th year in Saugus. Counting smaller displays at his former home in Winthrop, he’s been doing it for 30 years. Children who came to visit him when he first started the display are now bringing their own children.
“When I see that, it really makes me happy,” he said.
In 2008, AOL Living selected Conlon as having one of the best-decorated homes in the world, an honor he shared at the time with properties in California, England and Brazil.
And while Conlon goes all out for Christmas, he also decorates for other holidays such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Fourth of July and Halloween.
The display is lit from about 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. each day from Thanksgiving until after January 1.
On weekends, holiday music is also a part of the celebration.
“It gives me a lot of satisfaction to watch people enjoying this,” he said.
Conlon begins his planning as soon as the Halloween decorations come down, and the actual decoration takes more than a month. He is always adding something new to his display. As is traditional in many Christian churches, the Baby Jesus is not part of his Nativity scene until 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve, when carolers participate in the ceremony, an event to which the public is invited.
He thrives on the feedback and gratitude from his visitors.
“If people didn’t care, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “The feedback I get is why I do it.”
Photos: Reba Saldanha