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I was taught to practice Judaism with a certain regard for restraint. Hanukkah was signified by nothing more than a row of candles solemnly burning on our mantle. This subtlety makes perfect sense, historically speaking. A religious group that’s spent the majority of its thousands-year existence being rounded up for death camps has learned it’s best not to draw too much attention.

Perhaps this is why I never understood the Christian grudge against the commercial excesses of Christmas holiday cheer. Any sense of modesty is, in my opinion, unwarranted—Christians have chosen a more influential system of beliefs, so why be bashful about tinseling it up once a year? It must be very liberating to decorate a tree without worrying about being clubbed by Cossacks. I envy that kind of freedom.

If I were put in charge of Christmas, it would look a lot like Dyker Heights. This Brooklyn enclave of nouveau-riche Italians and Eastern Europeans is legendary for its massive homes trimmed with imported marble, obviously expensive stone-work, soaring Doric columns, street-facing manmade waterfalls, and parapets decorated with tremendous sculpted lions, rams, caribou, and centaurs. Walk the streets of Dyker Heights around the holidays, as thousands of people do each year, and you’ll see this triumph of working-class wealth illuminated by an extraordinary concentration of colorful homemade and store-bought seasonal decoration that is part celebration and part competition.

Do you think one plastic, illuminated Virgin Mary on your lawn is enough? Fuck you, says Dyker Heights; you need 20. And if the Pallazios across the street have 20, then you need 30. Each year, decorations are pulled from storage facilities and stacked upon themselves in geometric progression. The spectacle of excess has its own proprietary logic that tricks your memory and commands your brain to draw impossible conclusions like, yes, perhaps Santa Claus did have 63 reindeer.

Each tableau of Dyker Heights suggests a confusing narrative where each successive page has been scribbled over the previous. An infantry of illuminated toy soldiers protects a manger scene while, in front of it all, an extra dressed in an Elmo costume holds out a donation bucket and a furry handful of peppermint candies. Elsewhere, a Mrs. Claus marionette inexplicably cage-dances on a one family’s front lawn, with her husband several feet away, fidgeting in his own cage. But why are they imprisoned? There seems to be a crucial interim scene missing, but it doesn’t matter, because there is precious room for analysis when your senses are being taxed this hard. From one home to the next, if your peripheral vision detects even a single patch of lawn, or if you can find your way to a doorknob through the tangle of plastic figurines, tinsel, ornaments, and wiring, it is probably the result of someone’s gross negligence.

To make certain there are no such disappointments, Dyker Heights has spawned its own cottage industry of Christmas contractors. Calling cards for companies like DiMeglio Holiday Decorators (“Indoor & Outdoor Lighting & Décor”) are displayed on stakes in front of some of the neighborhood’s more outrageous creations. Their expertise lies in the subtle art of knowing where room remains for one more animatronic elf.

Sidney, one such contractor, explained he performs odd jobs year-round for one of the Dyker families, but Christmas is his big season. He directed my attention to a Santa Claus throne he had assembled from scrap lumber and red Astroturf. Sidney told me the throne had been constructed quickly and suddenly, when it was discovered the original throne—designed for a sleeker, European St. Nick—was too small to accommodate the new Santa’s girth. Just a few feet away from the replacement throne sat the original, loosely covered in a plastic tarp, a grim reminder of leaner years.

This season marked my third annual pilgrimage to the Verrazano edge of Brooklyn, to point, stare, and curse the bracing cold. And while some visitors regard the homes in head-shaking disbelief, I always find myself vicariously invigorated by the loud ebullience and warmed by the combined wattage of Christmas lighting. Dyker Heights makes me feel like the Peter Sellers character in I Love You, Alice B. Toklas—a lifelong square tasting the forbidden fruits of free love for the first time—though the visit was not without a few notable disappointments. The “Small World” diorama, which rivaled Disney’s version for both its obviousness and unselfconscious repetition, was missing this year. Sidney explained it was rumored the owners had sold their house. Most upsetting was the unexpected silence of my favorite Dyker attraction, Talking Santa, a 14-foot robotic Santa Claus perched on the lawn of one of the neighborhood’s most opulent estates. Again, according to Sidney—my inside man at this point—it seemed Talking Santa’s recorded greeting—if memory serves correctly, it begins with a thick outer-boroughs accent, proclaiming, “Ho ho ho! Can you believe it’s Christmas in Brooklyn?”—was supplied by the man of the house, who had recently passed away. The widow, who lives alone in the 11-bedroom home like a modern-day Mrs. Havisham (with reindeer), keeps Santa quiet for most of the season. Create your own speculations about her reasons. She does, however, make a concession during the week prior to Christmas, for the neighbors and visitors. Like a Dickens holiday classic, the story of the Talking Santa widow is a suitably bleak tale mixed with a measure of indomitably strong spirits.

After a few minutes of sightseeing in Dyker Heights, one can’t help but be struck by the handful of houses that stand naked and plain. Are their owners dead inside? Or Jewish? What might it be like to celebrate Hanukkah in a neighborhood like this? Could DiMeglio Holiday Decorators be retained to construct a two-story menorah with 36 candle holders? Or a giant, self-spinning, talking dreidel: “Ho Ho Ho. Can you believe you landed on Gimmel? Now give that lucky Jew all the pennies!” While I was considering this and wondering out loud why someone would have stolen all the baby Jesuses from the mangers, a couple called out from their station wagon. I immediately sized them up as Jewish—they had the trademark fangs and yellow eyes. A woman leaned out of the passenger side and asked, “Which block is the Small World house on?” I broke the bad news, and her mouth turned downward. “Oh, how could they? Oh, well, merry Christmas!” the couple offered. “Merry Christmas,” I replied, from one Jew to the next.
 

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Todd Levin was a writer for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien. He has also written for GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Salon. He lives in Los Angeles, where he comforts himself in knowing at least the sun is bright. More by Todd Levin