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.

What Is Bologna Made Of?

iStock/DebbiSmirnoff
iStock/DebbiSmirnoff

Like hot dogs and SPAM, bologna is often regarded as something of a mystery meat. Regardless of your feelings about this much-maligned cold cut, bologna is a familiar presence in supermarkets, school cafeterias, and maybe even your own fridge. But what exactly is it?

Similar to the a handful of other curious foods, the answer really depends on the deli or manufacturer. The meat can be made from cured beef, chicken, or pork—or some combination of the three. Some varieties are made from premium cuts of meat, while others are made from ground-up organs, trimmings, and other unmentionables. However, products containing the latter are usually labeled as having "byproducts" or "variety meats," and they're (thankfully) hard to find in grocery stores nowadays, according to The Takeout.

The meat is cooked and smoked, and sometimes wrapped in a casing that's made from the gastrointestinal tracts of cows, sheep, or hogs, according to The Journal Times. This is the norm for several varieties of sausage, and it sure beats synthetic casings, which can be made from collagen and sometimes plastic. However, the casings are often removed before the product is sold commercially.

Although it's now one of America's favorite sandwich fillings, the lunch staple was named after the city of Bologna in northern Italy—even though Italians would turn their noses up at the stuff we're sandwiching between two slices of white bread. (And don't forget the processed American cheese!)

Their version of bologna—known as mortadella—has different colored spots on its surface. That's because it contains bits of fat, peppercorns, and sometimes sliced pistachios. In the U.S., on the other hand, the USDA says all cooked sausages (including bologna and hot dogs) must be comminuted, or "reduced to minute particles." In other words, the ingredients are emulsified and churned into a homogenous pink meat paste. As The Huffington Post puts it, "Mortadella is to bologna as fresh, roasted turkey on Thanksgiving is to sliced turkey lunchmeat."

Oscar Mayer, one of the best-known bologna producers, sells one variety made from "mechanically separated" chicken and pork, with a little bit of beef added in. According to the USDA, "Mechanically separated meat is a paste-like and batter-like meat product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible meat, under high pressure through a sieve or similar device to separate the bone from the edible meat tissue."

Aside from the meat, the recipe contains a blend of spices. A few of the most common ones added to bologna include salt, pepper, celery seed, coriander, paprika, and sugar—or, more commonly, corn syrup. And myrtle berry is often the secret ingredient that gives the meat its signature taste.

Although many companies won't reveal their preferred blend of spices, most of the ingredients in bologna are no secret. They're listed on the package, free for all to read. As it turns out, most mass-produced varieties of bologna are a lot less gross than you may think—as long as you're ok with corn syrup-flavored meat batter. Who's hungry?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

4 Times Caps Lock Got Someone Into Trouble

iStock.com/ufukguler
iStock.com/ufukguler

The caps lock key, as we know it today, debuted in 1984 with the release of IBM's Model M keyboard. Prior to that, there had been a lock key, and a shift lock key before that. According to Daily Infographic’s history of the caps lock, the idea that typing in all caps is akin to yelling originated in the early days of the internet. You couldn’t use bold or italics on message boards, so block letters were the only way to ensure your comments would get noticed. It’s still a necessary key, but it can also get people into a whole lot of trouble when it’s used inappropriately. In honor of Caps Lock Day (which is today), here are four cases where typing in all caps went all wrong.

1. THE NEW YORK LAWYER WHO GOT SUSPENDED

Gino L. Giorgini III wasn’t pleased with a judge’s decision. In 2005, the Long Island-based lawyer sent the judge a note requesting reargument which read, “THIS IS LA LA LAND ON STEROIDS ... I CAN NOT COMPREHEND THE #%*%#$^%* THAT IS THIS DECISION.” Three years later, in an unrelated case, he hit the caps lock button again and included this comment in an affidavit: “Nice Joke. DISGUSTING.” According to The New York Times, a state appeals court issued an opinion last month which determined that Giorgini’s caps-riddled comments had gone “beyond the bounds of zealous advocacy and were derogatory, undignified, and inexcusable.” To be fair, three of the six comments that had been submitted to the court for review contained no unnecessary capitalization (although one had seven exclamation points). The shouting tone of the other written comments likely didn’t help Giorgini’s case, though.

2. THE NEW ZEALAND WOMAN WHO SENT WORK EMAILS IN BIG, BOLD, BLUE LETTERS

Vicki Walker, a financial controller for a cooperative of healthcare workers in New Zealand, was fired in 2007 for sending “confrontational” emails in bold, capital letters—often in a red or blue font. Walker subsequently sued her employer, and although her colleagues had complained about several of her emails, only one was submitted into evidence. It concerned the proper procedure for filling out staff claim forms, and in it, Walker wrote an otherwise ordinary sentence in bold, blue font: “TO ENSURE YOUR STAFF CLAIM IS PROCESSED AND PAID, PLEASE DO FOLLOW THE BELOW CHECKLIST.” The joke was on her employers, though. Two years after her firing, Walker was awarded just over $11,000 for “unfair dismissal,” partly because her workplace didn’t have any corporate guidelines pertaining to emails.

3. THE DAD WHO KEPT EMAILING HIS KIDS IN ALL CAPS

In 2014, a father found himself in court for a custody dispute involving his 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, who had moved back and forth between England and his native Israel. To help restore relations, a judge in England’s High Court told the dad he must stop sending emails to his children in capital letters because it was insensitive and looked like he was shouting at them. A family assistance officer was appointed to help the man write more “suitable” emails. "He needs help to make his messages appropriate and child-friendly," the judge said, according to The Telegraph. "There's nothing worse than an email suggestive that the sender is shouting at you."

4. THE PENNSYLVANIA MAN WHO WAS FIRED FOR WRITING AN OMINOUS EMAIL

Joseph F. Aversa, a sales manager in Pennsylvania, was terminated in 2011 after sending an email to another manager which read, “Hey Jim, you set me up pretty good ... I WON'T FORGET IT." The man was reportedly angry that one of his clients had been reassigned to another sales manager—the recipient of his ill-fated email. Unfortunately for Aversa, the all-caps message was perceived as a threat, and he was subsequently fired for threatening a fellow employee and violating the employer’s violence prevention policy. However, he filed suit against the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, which denied his claim for benefits, and the Pennsylvania court reversed the decision. The judge in this case argued that writing “neutral words” in capital letters doesn’t automatically make an email a threat.

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