Maria Hernandez still remembers her first Christmas in the United States.
She was 9 years old, fresh from her native Cuba. Her parents took her to see a home that was decked out in Christmas lights. It was her first glimpse of elaborate holiday decor.
That’s when the now 62-year-old made herself a promise: One day she would do the same at her home.
“Imagine all those years back, kids were more innocent,” said Hernandez, adding that she used to ask her mom if they could decorate their home. “We were on a budget so you could do a little bit, but not a lot.”
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Hernandez has since made good on that promise by hanging thousands of Christmas lights and decorations in front of her home for roughly 30 years — most recently, at the home she shares in Hialeah with her husband Tomas.
Hernandez is one of the many South Floridians who spend weeks decorating their home for the holidays. Thousands of lights. Train sets. Nativity scenes. Music. Animated figures. Their displays could rival Rockefeller Center.
For 27 years Mark and Margaret Steele have transformed their Cutler Bay home into a winter wonderland. They have nearly 20,000 lights around the house and lawn, several Christmas trees in the front yard, two nativity scenes and much more.
Their longtime dedication to decorating has led to generations of families stopping by each year. Margaret Steele says she often gets people who tell her: “When I was a little boy my parents brought me here and now I’m bringing my little boy by.”
They begin their work in the fall and tinker with it regularly. It’s not completely ready until just before Christmas. She says it’s a lot of work, but well worth the results.
“It’s like anything worth doing: It can be frustrating at times but the end result is worth any problems,” she said.
WATCHING THE CHILDREN
Every night during the holiday season, Tomas Hernandez sits in his carport and watches as people drive and walk by marveling at his Christmas display in Coral Gables.
He used to renovate homes for a living, but now, at 76, he puts his creative energy into a carnival of lights and music that adorn the front of his home at 828 Columbus Blvd.
“I like to sit outside every night and greet people coming by,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, Maria Hernandez, and her husband Tomas, 67, have developed their festive lights display for about 30 years. They moved to Hialeah last year, where they like to see the neighborhood children come by to visit Santa at their home at 6465 W. 12th Ct.
“We’ve got a little girl who comes two or three times a day with her grandparents to visit Santa,” Maria said, adding the girl, who is about 3, always insists on getting out of her stroller to plant a kiss on a Santa Mickey Mouse display.
BEARS & FROGS
For roughly two decades Alan Rapport has sported lights and sound for the holidays at his Cutler Bay home. There’s a Christmas tree on top of a 40-foot radio tower. Animatronic animals abound, with a blow-up bear choir and three jumping frogs wearing Santa hats.
Each night, Santa comes out to hand out candy canes.
Rapport calls his display at 8740 SW 186th St. a labor of love.
“The joy of seeing the children smile is priceless and that’s the reason we do it,” he said.
His display goes up shortly after Halloween each year.
“The nativity scene, is always the first to go up,’’ he says.
LIGHTS, LIGHTS, LIGHTS
This year may mark the final time Chuck Hutchings decks out his Miami Springs home at 1120 Quail Ave., with thousands of lights, including a big “Merry Christmas” banner across the top of his home.
“It started back in 2006 and it kind of grew from there,” Hutchings said, who has scaled back his display over the years from having 100,000-plus lights to now about 50,000. “This is probably the last year we’re going to to do it.”
Hutchings, who makes some of the figures in his holiday display, hands out candy canes to local children, and also collect donations for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In a phone interview Thursday, he said donations had reached nearly $1,500 – halfway to his goal of $3,000.
Always one to embrace technology, his display is synced up to holiday music that can be accessed by tuning into the right radio station when driving by his home.
Although he says this may be the final year of the display there’s always a chance he may bring it back. After all, he considers making holiday displays a hobby.
“Some people do trains, I make stuff out of PVC and junk,” Hutchings said.