The Real-Life Griswolds Behind an Incredible Holiday Display
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.
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.