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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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13 Facts About Friday the 13th
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There are plenty of superstitions out there, but none have woven themselves into the fabric of our culture quite like Friday the 13th. It's inspired books, songs, and one of the most successful horror movie franchises of all time. But despite giving us anxiety, the origins of this notorious date on the calendar remain largely unknown to most. Where did it start? Does it really stretch back to the 14th century? And how does Loki figure into all of it?

There are a lot of urban legends and half-truths out there, so we're diving a bit deeper into the history of this most terrifying of days with 13 facts about Friday the 13th.

1. THE BIBLE HELPED INSPIRE THE PHOBIA.

The Last Supper
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Part of superstition surrounding Friday the 13th comes from the Christian Bible. During the Last Supper, there were 13 guests—Jesus and his 12 apostles, one of which, Judas, would eventually betray him. Since then, some have believed in a superstition regarding 13 guests at a dinner table. This slowly extended to be an overall feeling that the number itself was bad luck.

Of course, when Jesus was crucified, it took place on a Friday, leading some to view the day with an anxious eye. Taken separately, both the number 13 and Friday have since made their way into modern superstitions.

2. SO DID LOKI.

Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Wilhelm Wägner, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Last Supper is one view on the origins of our fear of 13. Another comes from Norse mythology—more specifically in the form of the trickster god Loki. In those stories, Loki tricked the blind god Höðr into killing his brother Baldr with a dart of mistletoe. Baldr's mother, Frigg, had previously ordered everything in existence to never harm her son, except the mistletoe, which she viewed as incapable of harm.

How does 13 figure into this? Some accounts say Baldr's death took place at a dinner held for 12 gods before it was interrupted by Loki—the 13th (and most unwanted) guest.

3. SOME POINT TO THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR AS THE DAY'S ORIGIN (BUT IT'S PROBABLY NOT).

Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Contrary to what The Da Vinci Code told you, the reason people fear Friday the 13th isn't because of the Knights Templar. On the very unlucky Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip IV of France had members of the Templar arrested—growing uneasy with their power and covetous of their riches. There were trials, torture, and many of the Knights were burned at the stake, eventually leading to the superstition of Friday the 13th as a cursed and evil day.

That's not quite true, though. This is a take that's been drummed up in recent years, most visibly in Dan Brown's best-selling novel, but in reality, the unlucky combination of Friday and 13 didn't appear until around the turn of the 20th century.

4. A 1907 NOVEL PLAYED A BIG PART IN CREATING THE SUPERSTITION.

Panic on 'Black Friday' in the New York Gold Room, 1869.
Three Lions, Getty Images

We know a good deal about the history of our fear of 13 and of Fridays, but combined? Well, that's less clear. One popular thought, though, points to a 1907 book by a stockbroker named Thomas Lawson. Titled Friday, the Thirteenth, it tells the tale of a stockbroker who picks that particular day to manipulate the stock market and bring all of Wall Street down.

The book sold fairly well at the time, moving 28,000 copies in its first week. And it must have struck a chord with early 20th century society, as it's said to have caused a real-life superstition among stockbrokers regarding trading and buying stocks on the 13th. While not the first to combine the dates, Lawson's book is credited with popularizing the notion that Friday the 13th is bad news.

The fear among brokers was so real that in a 1923 New York Times article, it stated that people "would no more buy or sell a share of stock today than they would walk under a ladder or kick a black cat out of their path."

5. STOCKBROKERS HAVE REASON TO BE NERVOUS.

The 1873 rush from the New York Stock Exchange as banks began to fail and close, leading to a 10-day closure of the Stock Exchange.
Three Lions, Getty Images

Lawson's book was pure fiction, but the history of the stock market on Friday the 13th can be either profitable or absolutely terrifying, depending on the month. On most Friday the 13ths, stocks have actually risen—according to Time, they go up about 57 percent of the time, compared to the 52 percent on any other given date. However, if it's a Friday the 13th in October … be warned.

There's an average S&P drop of about 0.5 percent on those unlucky Fridays in October. And on Friday, October 13, 1989, the S&P actually saw a drop of 6.1 percent—to this day, it's still referred to as a "mini crash."

6. GOOD THINGS HAPPEN ON THAT DAY TOO, THOUGH! IT'S ALSO THE DAY HOLLYWOOD GOT ITS SIGN.

Hollywood sign on the hill
iStock

On Friday, July 13, 1923, the United States got a brand new landmark as the famed Hollywood sign was officially christened as a promotional tool for a new housing development. But before the sign took on its familiar image, it initially read "Hollywoodland"—the full name of the development that was being built on the hills above Los Angeles. The sign took on its current “Hollywood” look in 1949 when, after two decades of disrepair, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided to remove the last four letters and just maintain the first nine.

7. APPROPRIATELY, IT'S THE DATE HEAVY METAL WAS BORN.

Cover of Black Sabbath album
vinylmeister, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

This one isn't exactly scientific, but don't tell that to a metalhead. According to heavy metal lore, the genre was born Friday, February 13, 1970, with the UK release of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album. Bands like Steppenwolf had laid the foundation in the years before (Steppenwolf is also credited with coining the term "heavy metal" in their lyrics for 1968's "Born to Be Wild"), but those first dissonant "Devil's Tritone" chords of "Black Sabbath"—yes, the opening track of the album Black Sabbath by the band Black Sabbath was the song "Black Sabbath"—were the true birth of the dark, brooding, rocking subculture. Horns up.

8. THERE ARE SCIENTIFIC TERMS FOR THE PHOBIA.

Friday the 13th on a calendar
iStock

Afraid of Friday the 13th? Well now you can put a name to your phobia. You likely already know the term triskaidekaphobia, which only applies to the fear of the number 13. But for specific fears of Friday the 13th, you can choose between paraskevidekatriaphobia (Paraskevi meaning Friday in Greek) or friggatriskaidekaphobia, based on the word Frigg, the Norse goddess that Friday was named after in English. (Remember, it was her son who Loki had killed …)

9. ONE INDIANA TOWN PUT BELLS ON EVERY BLACK CAT TO WARD OFF BAD LUCK.

Black cat wearing a bell.
Danilo Urbina, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND 2.0

The folks of French Lick, Indiana (Larry Bird's hometown) are apparently a superstitious lot. In the 1930s and extending into the '40s, the town board decreed all black cats in the town were to wear a bell around their neck every Friday the 13th. Apparently, the confluence of two popular phobias was a bit too much for the small Indiana town to handle.

10. FIVE PRESIDENTS WERE PART OF A CLUB TO IMPROVE THE NUMBER'S REPUTATION.

old-fashioned formal dinner
iStock

Some people aren't just unaffected by the stigma of 13, they're downright defiant of it. In order to prove that there was no curse on the number, Captain William Fowler—who had fought in 13 Civil War battles—started a club in 1882 that spat in the face of superstition.

Members would meet on the 13th of the month, at 13 past the hour, and sit 13 at a dining table. For some, this behavior was just begging for a hex, but these men didn't care. They sought to disprove the myth and others along with it—open umbrellas lined the dining hall and members would willingly break glass, waiting for a so-called curse to befall them.

This wasn't just a club for eccentrics, either. Five presidents would become honorary members of The Thirteen Club: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, Cleveland would take part while he was in office. In all, it's said that no man was struck down by any particularly curious fate (except perhaps McKinley, who was assassinated), despite having so blatantly tempted it.

11. IN ITALY, PEOPLE FEAR FRIDAY THE 17TH.

number 17 on a wooden background
iStock

Italy's got the right idea, but they're a few days off. Traditionally, their fear coincides with the number 17, which can be arranged as the sum of the Roman numerals VIXI, which can then, in turn, be translated as the Latin phrase "I have lived." The overall superstition around Friday remains the same—it all has to do with Jesus's crucifixion.

This is no niche phobia, though. As ThoughtCo. points out, there are people who refuse to leave the house or go to work on Friday the 17th out of fear of the ominous date. And the Italian airline Alitalia doesn't even put a row 17 (or a 13) on its planes, as seen on this seat map [PDF].

12. THERE CAN'T BE MORE THAN THREE IN A GIVEN YEAR.

Calendar of 2015 with three Friday the 13ths
Calendar: iStock. Coloring: Mental Floss.

There's some good news if you're one of those people who are genuinely afraid of Friday the 13th: There can't be more than three in any given year, and it's possible to go as many as 14 months without one. There's an easy way to figure out if a month will have a Friday the 13th, too—if the month starts on a Sunday, you're guaranteed one. For 2018, 2019, and 2020, we get a bit of a break, as each year will only have two. This year, only April and July are affected.

13. AN ASTEROID WILL COME RELATIVELY CLOSE TO US IN 2029.

asteroid projection image
iStock

Let's just get this out of the way: We'll be fine. An asteroid will not collide with the Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029. We will, however, get a pretty spectacular look at asteroid 99942 Apophis (also known as 2004 MN4), which is about 320 meters wide and would be devastating if it did hit. When the asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers gave it a haunting 1-in-60 chance of colliding with Earth, but extra data has proved that it'll miss us entirely.

"We weren't too worried," Paul Chodas, of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, said, "but the odds were disturbing."

That's not to say the asteroid still won't be a sight to behold: Apophis will cruise past Earth 18,600 miles above ground. "For comparison," NASA wrote on its site, "geosynchronous satellites orbit at 22,300 miles." The asteroid will be mostly visible in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and another event of this nature may not be seen for another 1000 or so years.

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7 Secrets From a Grilled Cheese Master
Daniel Krieger
Daniel Krieger

Of the many eventful holidays that fall in April, none is more delicious than April 12th, a.k.a. National Grilled Cheese Day. Yes, like so many culinary delights before it, the ooey-gooey sandwiches you grew up craving have their very own day of celebration. Even better, it happens to fall in the middle of Grilled Cheese Month. Which is why we’ve enlisted the expertise of Spencer Rubin, founder and managing partner of Melt Shop, a New York City-based mini empire of grilled cheese eateries, to share his secrets on making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. (For the record, Rubin gives his mom full credit for his own grilled cheese-making skills.)

1. GOLDEN BROWN AND CRUNCHY IS KEY.

“The perfect grilled cheese is golden brown, crunchy to the touch, and has a little bit of cheese that is nearly burnt on the side because it spilled out over the edges from cooking directly on the skillet,” Rubin says. “The cheese pulls away from you after your first, second, and third bite. It’s savory, salty, and I always like a little bit of acid from a tomato to cut through the richness of the cheese.”

2. BUTTER ISN’T YOUR ONLY BASE OPTION.

But it’s probably your best option. “I like salted butter, but people talk about using mayo and margarine all the time,” says Rubin of what to put in your pan. “Salted butter drives the best results, if you ask me.”

3. DON’T SKIMP ON THE BREAD.

“Quality bread is key,” Rubin says. “Too soft and it doesn’t develop the right crust; too hard and it's like eating a crouton. Ideally you want day-old sourdough. Sourdough is key because the air pockets that develop while proofing help add to the texture. You want day-old bread because it has firmed up a bit, giving it a better crunch after toasting."

4. ALL CHEESE IS DELICIOUS CHEESE.

“Obviously good cheese is the key to a great grilled cheese,” Rubin says. “But the best thing about grilled cheese is you can never really go wrong. Whether it’s a 5-year aged cheddar, cave-aged Gruyere, or Kraft singles, they're all delicious in their own ways.” As for which cheeses melt best? Rubin says that semi-soft varieties like Muenster and Havarti are the way to go.

5. FLAVOR YOUR BUTTER FOR AN INSTANT UPGRADE.

You don’t have to break out the fine china to fancy up your sandwich. Let the butter and/or bread do all work. If you want to take your sandwich to a more sophisticated culinary level, Rubin recommends using “truffle butter, herb butter, or garlic bread with garlic and Parmigiano.”

6. SALTY AND SWEET IS A GREAT COMBINATION.

Tomatoes and bacon are tried and true add-ons. For an unexpected combination, Rubin recommends throwing in some jams and sweets. “I always love salty and sweet combinations,” he says. “My favorite sandwich on our menu is the Maple Bacon with aged cheddar, brick spread, Applewood smoked bacon, and maple syrup. The combination is insane.”

7. SIDES AREN’T REQUIRED, BUT THEY MAKE IT A MEAL.

Though for some diners a grilled cheese sandwich is an entire meal in itself, there’s no reason not to indulge in a side dish. Melt Shop is well known for its menu of tater tots, but lighter sides work, too. “I like a nice side salad with my grilled cheese,” Rubin says. “It’s nice to get a little green in your meal and a good vinaigrette always helps brighten things up."

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