RUSSELL — If you happen to drive down Barton Street in Russell after dark, it’s impossible not to notice the home of Johnny and Erica Keener. Decorating their house for Christmas has become a holiday tradition for the family, and the light display gets a little bigger every year.
There are an estimated 6,000 light bulbs — and that’s just on the house itself. Their front yard also includes an inflatable Santa Claus with Rudolph, a Nativity scene, a homemade gingerbread house and even a mailbox for letters to the North Pole. And the light display is synced to a medley of Christmas carols.
The home has become well-known by locals, who often drive by during the holidays to take in the sight.
“There will be people talking about it in July,” Johnny Keener said.
Strands of lights cover the home’s roof and two sides, blinking on and off in time to the music. There are reindeer, snowmen, a holiday train and several Christmas trees.
The whole display typically takes approximately 40 hours for the family to install, and they begin work immediately after Halloween. This year, however, it took approximately 70 hours, as the couple and their 9-year-old daughter, Jaelyn, built a large gingerbread house from scratch.
The small cottage with a peaked roof and frosted windows is decorated with large candy ornaments. They built it in their garage, then had help from neighbors and friends to move it into place.
“I liked helping on the gingerbread house,” Jaelyn said. “I think it’s really cool how we just do this every Christmas, because I like to hang out with my mom and dad every time we do it.”
The community is supportive of the project, with one neighbor even offering to let them expand the display into a portion of their yard. A neighbor also built the family a mailbox for letters to Santa, which the family hopes to share with local children next year.
The family will forward any letters received to Santa Claus’ mailing address in the North Pole, Erica Keener said.
The project originally was inspired by Erica, who said she always had wanted to create a Christmas light display for neighbors and community members to enjoy.
“I’ve always loved Christmas lights. Even when I was younger, I used to beg my dad and beg my dad. We lived on a farm out in the country, and the closest neighbor was a couple miles away, so nobody saw our lights,” she said. “It just has gone from that to this.”
Erica, who grew up near Brookville, said her husband wasn’t much of a Christmas person when she first met him.
“When we first met, he was like, ‘Oh, I’m not a big Christmas person.’ I was like you’re going to have to figure this out because that might be a deal-breaker,” she said with a laugh.
But it didn’t take long for Johnny, a Russell native, to fully jump on board. He said Christmas wasn’t such a big deal in his family while he was growing up, but he wants to establish holiday traditions for the sake of their daughter.
“So for her, I’d like for it to be important,” he said. “So it is now.”
The holiday cheer continues inside the family’s home, which boasts a life-size figurine of a dancing Santa Claus just inside the doorway and a total of six decorated trees spread throughout the house.
The family has their lights on from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., and plans to continue lighting their house until the New Year. The lights also will remain on through the night on Christmas Eve — minus the music — to help Santa find their house, Johnny Keener said.
And they have plans to continue growing the light display. They often look for new items when holiday decorations go on sale after Christmas, and hope to someday invite the big man in red to visit with local children and personally receive Santa letters.
“We’re just glad that people come and enjoy it,” he said. “I think it would be cool to be able to have Santa Claus come visit. How cool would that be, to have pictures with Santa Claus in front of a lit-up house?”