Joe Drelick
Joe Drelick

The Real-Life Griswolds Behind an Incredible Holiday Display

Joe Drelick
Joe Drelick

When the newly-married Joe and Tracey Drelick pulled up in front of a house for sale in Harleysville, Pennsylvania in 1998, she thought it was one of the most attractive properties she had ever seen. It was in their price range, well-cared for, and in their preferred neighborhood.

Joe refused to get out of the car.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Are you kidding?”

Joe shook his head. “The castle,” he said. “The castle won’t fit in the front yard.”

For 15 years, Joe’s father, Bill, had been engineering one of the most elaborate and spectacular displays of holiday cheer of any private residence in the country. In addition to a 17-foot-tall castle, there was a church, a nativity scene, tens of thousands of lights, and over two dozen interactive displays. Press a button and an animated Santa would laugh heartily or the Little Drummer Boy would bounce up and down. Press another and tiny figures in the windows of the miniature buildings would dance.

Bill Drelick's spectacle had attracted thousands of visitors from every state. But Joe knew his father wouldn’t do it forever. The day would come when the Drelick tradition would fall into his hands. And he would need a large enough yard to tend to it.

The couple kept looking. When they found another house, Tracey walked through it with the realtor while Joe stayed outside, measuring tape in hand. He wanted to be sure the spirit of Christmas could fit into 800 square feet.

 

The Drelick preoccupation with holiday excess began in 1983, the year Joe, then 13, begged and pleaded with his parents to put up a more elaborate display than the spare decorations they preferred. One night, with Bill and his wife at a party, Joe brought friends over and had them help with the lights. When the Drelicks returned, the exterior of the house looked like a Macy’s department store.

“My wife was very upset,” Bill tells mental_floss. “Hollering at him. ‘I’m gonna kill that kid.’ Typical mother.”

Bill convinced her the lights would be a fitting tribute to her father, who had recently passed. She relented. For years, Joe and his mother added to the display, hanging a series of lights until Bill realized he couldn’t watch television because all of that holiday spirit kept blowing fuses.

“That’s when I decided to get involved,” he says.

A facilities manager by trade, Bill had the electrical and carpentry knowledge needed to match his son’s ambition for increasingly involved decorations. “Around 1990, I made a castle out of plywood,” Joe, now 46, tells mental_floss. “Every time the wind would blow, it would fall over. So my father essentially remade it using metal screening so the wind would go right through it. We had little windows with elves in them. And that was really the beginning.”

The activity in the castle's windows soon began to attract passersby, who would stop and peer out of their cars. “I thought, let’s give them something to really look at and study,” Bill says. “So each window had an ornament, and when you press a button, it would turn on."

“I equate that to the invention of sliced bread,” Joe says. “It was huge.”

The push buttons gave the Drelick yard interactivity. Soon, dozens of people were getting out of their cars and approaching the residence, marveling at the growing population of plastic reindeer and animatronic figures. Despite $600 utility bills, Bill kept the lights on for hours at a time, setting a curfew only when he realized that people who came later at night had enjoyed a little too much liquid cheer.

“I would have buses from the senior home pull up,” he says. “Some of them were too old to get out and look, so I’d get on the bus and describe everything to them.”

Bill’s neighbors were generally tolerant of the traffic, apart from one resident who had just moved in and never quite acclimated to the goodwill. He had police come out nightly and complained to the township over noise levels, which put Bill on the radar of local electrical inspectors.

“They wanted me to get licensed or something,” he recalls. “But the push buttons were hooked up to a 5-volt battery. It’s no different than holding a flashlight.” Bill finally got an attorney to write a sternly-worded letter, which ended the back-and-forth.

“Still won’t talk to us,” Bill says.

Three generations of Drelicks—Joe, Jacob, and Bill—prepare the castle for display.

 
By 1998, Joe was out of the house, married and expecting his first child. His own display was comparatively modest, but he’d spend up to eight weeks helping his father get ready for the unveiling of the Ambler display on Black Friday.

“We just enjoyed each other’s company,” Joe says. “I knew he’d retire at some point. He did it until he was 75 years old.”

Bill’s final year as the lead builder was 2010. “I’m 80 now,” he says. “It just got to the point where it didn’t feel right. I’d be out of breath and have to sit down in a chair and burp every 20 minutes.” His retirement was official after both a quadruple bypass and a spill off a ladder. “That had nothing to do with my health, just my own stupidity,” he says. “I was standing on the very top step of a 12-foot ladder, which you should not do. The sun was high and I was trying to see around it. Down I went, brrrrrappp down the steps. They slowed the fall.”

Bill was fine, but done. In 2011, he and Joe began the laborious process of moving over all of his materials 20 minutes away to Joe’s residence in Harleysville, where Joe constructed a shed in his backyard to help contain it all. You could fit three cars in there, Joe says, except it’s full of gingerbread houses. Displays like the castle—which measures 24 feet across—were designed by Bill with storage in mind. The pieces are like Russian nesting dolls, folding into one another. In Joe’s basement workshop, he and his father spend time repairing displays that were pounded by weather the year prior.

“Olaf from Frozen took a beating,” Joe says.

New additions are frequent. Last year, Joe built a Philadelphia skyline featuring his beloved Phillies and a silhouette of Rocky Balboa. Two years before that, he constructed an immense clock tower that he had fantasized about crafting since he was a kid.

“It’s 19 feet tall and sits on top of the shed,” Joe says. “Kids look up in awe. It's like Big Ben.”

Last winter, ABC came calling, wanting to film the Drelick display so they could go up against other light fanatics in a primetime contest special. The Drelicks lost. Sort of.

“Someone left a handmade trophy on our porch shortly after the show aired,” Tracey says. “It came with a note saying, ‘You guys were the real winners.’”

 

Joe has been a facilities manager for 25 years, which gives him a fair amount of vacation time. He uses 10 days of it every year to help meet the demands of preparing the display, which is sometimes enough to keep him up at night.

“I just want to get it done for Black Friday,” he says. “You hope the weather is good. I always worry about Nor'easters.”

He likes to say he's happy year-round and Christmas is a time when everyone else catches up. Joe will play Santa at least once this year, handing out stuffed animals and coloring books. When his children were younger, they would play elves. “We have that on videotape,” Tracey says, which sounds vaguely threatening. Their oldest, Jordynn, wrote her college application essay about the display. Jacob, 16, is responsible for carrying parts around.

“It’s coming his way if he wants it,” Joe says. “I’m grooming him.”

Last year, the family received more than 12,500 visitors, with an average night attracting around 500 people. There’s no admission charge, though sometimes people will leave cookies or festive sweaters. Many sign the guestbook, which Tracey and Joe read after the 35,000 lights—mostly LEDs—go out at 9:30 p.m. It's tangible evidence that their work has brought a lot of people a lot of happiness.

“Reading things like, ‘You have an amazing soul’ can get to you,” she says. Men have proposed to girlfriends in her yard. Young couples who visited Bill’s display in the past now show up with their own children in tow. Local police have told her they’ve driven by the house on nights they need cheering up. It always works.

You can follow the Drelicks' progress as they set up the lights—and find out how you can visit—on their Facebook page.

All images courtesy of Joe Drelick.

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11 of the Most Extreme Junk Foods Ever Created
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It should come as no surprise that National Junk Food Day is traditionally celebrated on July 21—smack dab in the middle of the dog days of summer, when the streets run thick with ice cream trucks and county fairs boast the kind of fried treats that can only be described as “awesome” (both in the modern sense and the more dated, whoa, we are in awe of that usage). But National Junk Food Day shouldn’t be celebrated with commonplace junk food; oh, no, it deserves something far bigger and better. So save your potato chips and chocolate bars for another day, and get ready to try some truly wild treats.

1. THE KFC DOUBLE DOWN


KFC

Perhaps the most unexpectedly clever way to create a new extreme junk food item is to turn a non-junky foodstuff into something that just oozes calories and decadence. Fried chicken giant KFC knew that—and played it up to major effect—when they introduced the KFC Double Down to America back in 2010. The sandwich foregoes the most traditional aspect of any sandwich (the bread!) and substitutes two fried chicken filets. In between the two pieces of chicken? Bacon, two different kinds of cheese, and the Colonel’s “secret sauce.” There’s no room for a bun here, folks.

2. PIZZA HUT'S HOT DOG STUFFED CRUST PIZZA

We may associate items like fast food pizza and hot dog-stuffed anything with all-American palates, but cheesy juggernaut Pizza Hut saw things a bit differently. In 2012, the chain introduced a pizza with a hot dog-stuffed crust to our neighbors across the pond, treating their UK customers to the kind of taste sensation some people might have had literal nightmares about. Is it a pizza? Is it a hot dog? Somehow, it’s both—and yet something much more.

3. FRIENDLY'S GRILLED CHEESE BURGERMELT


Friendly's

Once again, a wily restaurant chain took a normal food item—in this case, a hamburger—and amped up its junk factor by doing away with something as commonplace as buns, in favor of an entirely different (and, yes, very junky) item. In 2010, Friendly’s rolled out its very own spin on the Double Down, slamming a regular old burger between not one, but two grilled cheese sandwiches. Who needs buns when you can have four pieces of bread, gooey cheese, and unfathomable amounts of butter?

4. GUY FIERI'S CHEESECAKE CHALLENGE

Whiz-bang chef Guy Fieri has long drawn ire for his more wild culinary creations, but what sets his cuisine apart from that of other junk food aficionados is his steadfast dedication to the key elements of any extreme item: size and odd combinations. Fieri’s “Guy's Cheesecake Challenge” is currently on the menu of his Vegas Kitchen and Bar, but it’s easy enough to replicate at home: Just halve a cheesecake, throw it on a plate, and douse liberally with hot fudge, pretzels, and potato chips. (What, no bacon?)

5. DENNY'S FRIED CHEESE MELT


Denny's

In August 2010, Denny’s introduced the Fried Cheese Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with fried mozzarella sticks. Yes, it was served with both French fries and a side of marinara sauce, because it’s important to eat vegetables with every meal.

6. DUNKIN' DONUTS'S GLAZED DONUT BREAKFAST SANDWICH


Dunkin' Donuts

If you’ve ever hit up your local Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast and found yourself stumped when it came time to decide if you wanted a donut or a breakfast sandwich to get your morning motor revving, Dunkin' Donuts came up with a brilliant culinary brainstorm in 2013: the fast food favorite unveiled a breakfast sandwich that used glazed donuts as “bread,” wrapped around bacon and peppered egg.

7. JACK IN THE BOX MUNCHIE MEAL

What Jack’s Munchie Meals lack in creativity, they more than make up for in pure, unadulterated size and content. Each Munchie Meal—there are four total—features a massive sandwich (from the Stacked Grilled Cheese Burger to the Spicy Nacho Chicken Sandwich, and all sorts of wild fried things in between) accompanied with two beef tacos, “Halfsies” (a combo of fries and curly fries), and a 20-ounce fountain drink. These intense snack boxes are still available at most Jack in the Box locations, but you’ll have to wait until after 9 p.m. to procure your very own.

8. PIZZA HUT CHEESY BITES REMIX PIZZA

Apparently, there’s nothing that Pizza Hut loves more than using its crust as a delivery system for other junk food items. The hut that pizza built may have crammed hot dogs and hamburgers on to their pie sides, but there was something special about the Cheesy Bites Remix pizza. It featured fried cheese pockets stuffed with three different varieties of extra junk, from spicy seasoning to cream cheese and sesame to mozzarella and parmesan.

9. DEEP FRIED BUTTER

County and state fairs have long been hotbeds (sizzling, oily hotbeds) of wild, deep-frying invention. Dunking things in batter and then tossing them into a vat of oil is a nifty way to turn almost anything into a delicious crisp pocket of junky decadence, perfect for utensil-free eating—but that doesn’t mean that everything needs to get the deep-fried treatment. While deep-fried Oreos may be a stroke of brilliance, deep fried butter is just plain madness. Here’s a quick test: If you wouldn’t eat something if it weren’t deep-fried, don’t eat it if it is deep-fried. When was the last time you ate an entire stick of butter? See? Point proven.

10. THE BACON BUN BURGER

Not content to have a bacon sandwich between two chicken filets? Is a grilled cheese bun replacement not for you? Then try making your very own hamburger buns out of bacon. Carbs are bad for you, right?

11. FRIED ICE CREAM SANDWICH

The Florida State Fair is the proud home of the first fried ice cream sandwich, a junky treat that bears a name that doesn’t even begin to explain what it holds between its buns. It’s not a fried ice cream sandwich so much as a bacon cheeseburger (technically a sandwich) topped with a ball of fried ice cream. It might be a good meal for multi-taskers—no need to worry about dessert—but it doesn’t sound like the kind of thing good for anything else.

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10 Things You Didn't Know About the Fourth of July
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With 242 years of tradition behind it, the Fourth of July is one of America’s most cherished holidays. It's when we celebrate our nation's mythology with a day off, a backyard barbecue, and plenty of fireworks. But with all that history, you'd be forgiven if you didn't know quite everything about July 4. So from the true story behind the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to some staggering hot dog statistics, here are 10 things you might not know about the Fourth of July.

1. THE DECLARATION WASN'T SIGNED ON JULY 4 (OR IN JULY AT ALL).

John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumball's 1819 painting "Declaration of Independence."
John Trumbull [Public domain] // Wikimedia Commons

It might make for an iconic painting, but that famous image of all the Founding Fathers and Continental Congress huddled together, presenting the first draft of the Declaration of Independence for July 4, 1776 signing, isn't quite how things really went down. As famed historian David McCullough wrote, "No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia."

It's now generally accepted that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed on the Fourth of July—that's just the day the document was formally dated, finalized, and adopted by the Continental Congress, which had officially voted for independence on July 2 (the day John Adams thought we should celebrate). Early printed copies of the Declaration were signed by John Hancock and secretary Charles Thomson to be given to military officers and various political committees, but the bulk of the other 54 men signed an official engrossed (finalized and in larger print) copy on August 2, with others to follow at a later date. Hancock (boldly) signed his name again on the updated version.

So if you want to sound like a history buff at your family's barbecue this year, point out that we're celebrating the adoption of the Declaration, not the signing of it.

2. THE FIRST CELEBRATIONS WEREN'T MUCH DIFFERENT THAN TODAY'S.

After years of pent-up frustration, the colonies let loose upon hearing the words of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Military personnel and civilians in the Bowling Green section of Manhattan tore down a statue of King George III and later melted it into bullets; the King’s coat of arms was used as kindling for a bonfire in Philadelphia; and in Savannah, Georgia, the citizens burnt the King in effigy and held a mock funeral for their royal foe.

Independence Day celebrations began to look a bit more familiar the following year, as the July 18, 1777 issue of the Virginia Gazette describes the July 4 celebration in Philadelphia:

"The evening was closed with the ringing of bells, and at night there was a grand exhibition of fireworks, which began and concluded with thirteen rockets on the commons, and the city was beautifully illuminated. Every thing was conducted with the greatest order and decorum, and the face of joy and gladness was universal."

There were even ships decked out in patriotic colors lining harbors and streamers littering city streets. Once you get past the mock funerals and rioting of 1776, modern Independence Day celebrations have stuck pretty close to the traditions started in 1777.

3. EATING SALMON ON THE FOURTH IS A TRADITION IN NEW ENGLAND.

The tradition of eating salmon on the Fourth of July began in New England as kind of a coincidence. It just so happened that during the middle of the summer, salmon was in abundance in rivers throughout the region, so it was a common sight on tables at the time. It eventually got lumped in to the Fourth and has stayed that way ever since, even with the decline of Atlantic salmon.

To serve salmon the traditional New England way, you'll have to pair it with some green peas. And if you're really striving for 18th-century authenticity, enjoy the whole meal with some turtle soup, like John and Abigail Adams supposedly did on the first Fourth of July. (You can still be a patriot without the soup, though.)

4. MASSACHUSETTS WAS THE FIRST STATE TO RECOGNIZE THE HOLIDAY.

Massachusetts recognized the Fourth of July as an official holiday on July 3, 1781, making it the first state to do so. It wasn't until June 28, 1870 that Congress decided to start designating federal holidays [PDF], with the first four being New Year's Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This decreed that those days were holidays for federal employees.

However, there was a distinction. The Fourth was a holiday "within the District of Columbia" only. It would take years of new legislation to expand the holiday to all federal employees.

5. THE OLDEST ANNUAL FOURTH OF JULY CELEBRATION IS HELD IN BRISTOL, RHODE ISLAND.

Eighty-five years before the Fourth of July was even recognized as a federal holiday, one tradition began that continues to this day. Billed as "America's Oldest Fourth of July Celebration," the town of Bristol, Rhode Island, has been doing Independence Day right since 1785.

The festivities began just two years after the Revolutionary War ended, and 2017 will be its 232nd entry. Over the years the whole thing has expanded well beyond July 4; the town of 23,000 residents now begins to celebrate the United States on Flag Day, June 14, all the way through to the 2.5-mile July 4 parade. What began as a "patriotic exercise"—meaning church services—has morphed into a cavalcade of parades, live music, food, and other activities.

6. AND THE SHORTEST PARADE IS IN APTOS, CALIFORNIA.

From the oldest to the shortest, the Fourth of July parade in Aptos, California, is just a hair over half a mile long. Taking up two city blocks, and measuring just .6 miles, this brief bit of patriotism features antique cars, decorated trucks, and plenty of walkers. Afterward, there's a Party in the Park, where folks can enjoy live music, food, and games.

7. THERE ARE AROUND 15,000 INDEPENDENCE DAY FIREWORKS CELEBRATIONS EVERY YEAR.

Fireworks burst over New York City.
JEWEL SAMAD / AFP / Getty Images

According to the American Pyrotechnics Association, around 15,000 fireworks displays will take place for the Fourth of July holiday (even if some aren't exactly on July 4). Though pricing varies, most small towns spend anywhere from $8000-$15,000 for a fireworks display, with larger cities going into the millions, like the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular at around $2.5 million.

8. WE'LL EAT AN OBSCENE AMOUNT OF HOT DOGS.

Around 150 million, to be more specific—that's how many hot dogs will be consumed by Americans on the Fourth of July. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, that amount of dogs can stretch from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles more than five times.

In 2016, 70 of those dogs were scarfed down by Joey Chestnut, who won the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Competition for the ninth time.

9. AND WE'LL SPEND BILLIONS ON FOOD.

Americans will spend big on food and drinks this Fourth. Big to the tune of around $7.1 billion when all is said and done, according to the National Retail Federation. This includes food and other cookout expenses, averaging out to about $73 per person participating in a barbecue, outdoor cookout or picnic.

Then comes the booze. The Beer Institute estimates that Americans will spend around $1 billion on beer for their Fourth celebrations, and more than $450 million on wine.

10. THREE PRESIDENTS HAVE DIED, AND ONE WAS BORN, ON THE FOURTH.

You probably know that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826—50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was adopted. They're not the only presidents to have died on the Fourth, though; James Monroe—the nation’s fifth president—died just a few years later on July 4, 1831.

Though the holiday might seem like it has it out for former presidents, there was one future leader born on Independence Day. The country's 30th Commander-in-Chief, Calvin Coolidge, was born on July 4, 1872.

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