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HOLIDAY TRADITIONS | HOVEY AVENUE HOUSE

Watch now: 900 Christmas decorations fill this Normal man's yard

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His famous Santas display includes an alien this year and has gone viral.

NORMAL — A light-up Nativity scene came first.

And then a Santa.

And later a snowman and some penguins.

What began in the early ’90s as a display of just a few holiday decorations and lights for Mike Holtz has exploded into a mesmerizing Christmastime staple, generating viral videos and photos on Facebook, Twitter and now TikTok. 

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Mike Holtz stands among some of the hundreds of holiday decorations Thursday at his home at 1210 Hovey Ave., Normal. The display started going up in September. 

"For years it was not that big of a deal," the 61-year-old Normal resident said in a recent interview with The Pantagraph. "I felt like I was giving something back to people. Probably the kids are the biggest thing. If you look out the window and see the little kids out here, it just makes you feel good."

For two decades Holtz's house at 1210 W. Hovey Ave. in Normal has served as a popular destination when driving through the Twin Cities on the hunt for Christmas lights.

About 900 vintage blow-mold light-up outdoor decorations fill Holtz's yard and scale the trees and walls of his house. Those driving by might catch a glimpse of rows upon rows of candy canes, gingerbread men, Santa Claus and his reindeer, snowmen and yes, even an alien or two — or five.

And that's not even all of them. About 1,000 more figures are stored in the attic of his garage and in sheds behind his house.

"I always liked other people's houses decorated," Holtz said. "Every year (Christmas) would creep up, 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 and more.

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Hundreds of Santas and snowmen stand behind a fence Thursday in front of Holtz's home.

"Then, it just kept going. I just wanted to have some Christmas decorations and some Christmas lights, and I guess you could say I got obsessed with it."

Millions of views 

Holtz is not active on the internet that much, but over the years his impressive display has reached millions of people across the globe. Three or four years ago, a photo of the house went viral on Facebook, reaching around 32 million people.

Most recently, Lindsey Miller, 35, of Normal, uploaded a video of her and her family driving past the house to popular social media app TikTok. The video, set to the tune of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," showed the house in its full glory at night with all the decorations lit up. In days it reached around 1.5 million people. 

"He's been doing this since I was a little kid," 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."

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Santas hover over Holtz outside his Normal home. 

Since posting the video to TikTok, Miller has been inundated with questions about the house, how Holtz got started and why, where the decorations came from and, most pressingly, how high his electricity bill is.

She's even been asked to reupload the video with different variations of Christmas songs and popular TikTok "sounds," with some garnering as many as 2.4 million views.

"It is extreme, but overall I think people are pretty mesmerized by it," she said. "It's my favorite Christmas house here in town. There's a couple other good ones, but his is by far the showstopper as far as displays go."

As far as answers to viewers' questions, Holtz said about 30% of his collection was given to him and about 40% he's purchased from going to garage and estate sales.

While he doesn't know the year on the decorations or how old they all are, he said blow-mold light-up decorations are rare these days and can go for a couple hundred dollars at some places.

Before inflation, to have his Christmas lights on from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day would add an extra $140 to his electric bill, but this year he's estimating it to be around $150. He uses energy-efficient light bulbs to keep the costs down, he said.

After the first few years of putting out the decorations and having people steal them, he began erecting a fence around his yard. It's not up year-round; it's just to prevent people from taking the decorations as much as possible, he said.

As he's gotten older, Holtz said it's getting more and more difficult to drag everything out of his garage. Two of his adult sons help him out from time to time. This year he began putting up lights in September.

Flick Light winner

Mike Holtz and his family won The Pantagraph's first "Flick Litest Christmas Lighting Contest" in December 2001. Holtz received a 5-foot cutout of "Jolly Ol' Saint Nick Flick" as a trophy.

"What I get out here in the main yard is probably most of my favorites," said Holtz.

To prevent fires and other mishaps, there are electrical boxes on all four corners of the house with five different circuits. The result is a system of electrical cords and extensions to connect everything together. He's only had one incident when one of the boxes hanging from the trees caught fire. The blaze was spotted right away by a neighbor.

"It's like an artery system," he said. "I try to separate so many things per circuit so it doesn't blow the fuses. Now, I've had problems, but it's usually come from squirrels. Squirrels and rabbits will chew through the cords."

There are five alien decorations on the property — two in the tree and three scattered around the house in various hiding spots. The lights have become somewhat of a joke for Holtz.

He recalled how one Pantagraph reporter asked him where the aliens were after he began taking the decorations down after Christmas Day. Holtz replied, "You wouldn't believe it. Christmas Day, I came out here and they were gone. I think the mothership took them."

In seriousness, he said, "But think about it. Have you ever heard anybody say Christmas is just an Earth thing? It could be a universal thing. That's why I got them out there."

About those urban legends 

Over the years the story behind Holtz's decorations and how they came to be has become sort of an urban legend. Some rumors have suggested he had a child who was sick, or a neighbor had a child who was sick, and he was just trying to spread some holiday cheer.

In reality, the decorating really ramped up in 2001 when Pantagraph columnist Bill Flick held the first "Flick Litest Christmas Lighting Contest." At that time, Holtz and his neighbor across the street entered somewhat of a Christmas light war.

@thepantagraph

##duet with @lindseylmiller Hi TikTok! Thanks for showing some love to Bloomington-Normal. We will have a story Sunday at pantagraph.com about Mike and his ##Christmas house! ##stanta ##elf ##itsbeginningtolookalotlikechristmas ##snowman ##christmaslights ##christmas2021 ##supportlocaljournalism ##localnews ##newspaper

♬ It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas - Michael Bublé

"He covered his whole house all with lights, I had all this plastic and lights out here — I didn’t have as much as I do now," Holtz said. “It turned into a competition because they had that 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’d be sending him out to buy more lights.”

That year, Holtz became the first "Flick Litest" winner, getting $500 and a lighted, "5-foot facsimile of Jolly Ol' Saint Nick Flick," according to Pantagraph archives. The contest actually had a three-way tie for first out of 13 participants, but the judges ultimately gave the prize to Holtz and his family.

"Of all the homes in this town, and there's a lot of them, there's only one that makes my jaw drop every time and that's Mike's house," said Flick. "He's the spirit of Christmas in my world. Even if some people don't like what he does or people like what he does, he is the epitome of what Christmas should be."

Starting Thanksgiving Day, people can drive past Holtz' house to look at the lights. He typically has the display turned on from 5 to 10 p.m., or until 11 p.m. closer to Christmas. 

Holtz said, "The only night it stays on is on Christmas Eve because you've gotta make damn sure Santa Claus sees it."

Sierra Henry's 5 most memorable stories of 2021

Another crazy year has flown by and I would be lying if I said choosing my top five most memorable stories was easy. These lists, which we do every year in December, are always difficult. How can I sum up all the good, hard work we do in just five stories?

This is my second year with The Pantagraph, so I decided to choose five in-depth pieces that spoke to me and our readers. Some are heart-wrenching, such as the memories Jelani Day's friends shared with me. Others are more light hearted, like my story looking at Steak 'n Shake and all the fun Bloomington-Normal residents had eating at the restaurant when it was in its heyday. 

There are many reasons I am proud to work for this organization. Our work is not only a reflection of ourselves as reporters, but of this community. I hope everyone can continue enjoying all the great work we do every day to provide quality local journalism to our readers. Thank you to all of our subscribers and readers for the support.

Contact Sierra Henry at 309-820-3234. Follow her on Twitter: @pg_sierrahenry.

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Related to this story

Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington will receive $3.3 million through the program, which will fund 90% of the airport's $3,714,000 project to rehabilitate its main entrance and circle drive, according to a CIRA news release.

"While the idea of Christmas is peace, love, calm and endless traditions, think about it — many of the memories that stick most prominently are those that instead featured something a bit unusual or out-of-the-ordinary," Bill Flick writes.

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