To stroll past the abode of Orly and Carol Lucero is to lose yourself, even for a moment, in the innocent joy of the holiday season.
The couple spares no expense decking out their house and yard with every type of Christmas paraphernalia imaginable. There are the usual trappings: twinkling lights, wreaths, tinsel. But it's the less conventional decorations that jump out right away. The front lawn is brimming with a garden of luminous, billowy inflatables that stand like friendly sentinels, beckoning passersby to stop, stare and smile. In short, they go all out.
The Luceros' property, at the corner of south Maple and Fourth streets, is impossible to miss. The attention doesn't bother them. In fact, they love the grins their spectacle elicits, especially from children and from seniors on nursing home outings.
Spreading cheer is precisely what motivates them to keep doing it year after year.
"Our goal is to make people smile, make them laugh, you know?" Orly Lucero said. "Once in a while the cars line up outside, like a little traffic jam."
Instead of the cursing and raised fists that mark a true traffic jam, however, good spirits abound here.
It makes the public happy...something to look at and remember," he added.
It all began in the early 1990s - shortly after the couple moved to Cortez - when Orly wanted to concoct a bit of Christmas magic for daughter Felice, then a precocious third-grader.
They started simple, stringing up some lights and arranging cheap plastic snowmen around the lawn.
"Nowhere like it is now," Carol Lucero says, laughing.
Over time the quantity and quality of decorations snowballed. The more they accumulated, the more they discovered a penchant for the theatrical.
The current display takes about four days to set up. Avid collectors, the Luceros have added extra garage space to the house to store the Christmas decorations, among other random trinkets and family heirlooms.
Every year they scour stores - local and when they travel - for new holiday inflatables. They also shuffle the old ones around, some years keeping them in storage, to keep the display fresh and unpredictable.
"We're always on the lookout," Carol said.
Orly, a former education board member, city councilor and Cortez mayor, is a senior engineering technician at Empire Electric Association, begging the question: how much does the power bill spike in December?
"All I know is the meter is out there spinning! (The bill) gets healthy, but we budget for it. Plus, we don't like to view it so much through the lens of cost."
Orly's electrical knowledge comes in handy.
"From experience I've learned a few tricks to balance the power demands. You turn on sections at a time, not all at once. That way it doesn't overload the breakers."
He adds that energy-efficient - and brighter - LED lights they've integrated recently have helped keep the bill under control.
A would-be clear favorite, the Luceros choose not to participate in seasonal Christmas light contests, both because they don't want to make it a competitive endeavor and because people assume Empire subsidizes their costs.
"It's not true. They treat all customers the same," Carol said. "No favoritism."
For Carol, the decorations are a welcome respite from the heavy emotions she experiences as a volunteer victim advocate for area law enforcement agencies and Southwest Memorial Hospital. She responds to trauma of all kinds - including accidental injuries, domestic violence and suicides - across the 22nd Judicial District.
"I'm far too busy," she said, adding, "A lot of times we don't say much. Just letting (the victims) know someone is there is enough."
A TOUCH OF HUMOR
In the Lucero yard, Santa Claus is a man of many talents. He can be seen astride a motorcycle, piloting an airplane and a helicopter, selling treats from a food cart (with help from loyal elves), sliding on his belly into an igloo and playing cards with two reindeer ("North Pole Hold 'Em").
Observing it all from the rooftop is an inflatable Carol affectionatley calls "Chubby Santa", who assuredly will not be fitting down any chimney.
Most people are respectful and don't tamper with the decorations.
"The only thing we've ever had stolen was the baby Jesus somebody snatched from the manger of a nativity set," Carol recalls. "The police department called and told us to come down to the station and pick him up."
When they arrived to fetch the abducted Christ-child, they found a veritable nursery, with six plastic infants waiting to be claimed. On the naughty-or-nice scale, filching a baby Jesus from a display can't rate too highly.
Unflappably cheerful, the Luceros only grow a touch wistful when rememberingt the stately, 80-foot evergreen tree that once towered over their yard. It contracted a disease about 10 years ago and they, regrettably, had to chop it down.
During its prime, Orly would climb the tree - freehand, no ropes - to place a giant gold star at the apex.
No magi from the Orient ever showed up, but a family friend who lived on Lebanon Road once called to say the star was visible some three miles away.
GOOD TIDINGS TO YOU
The night air is crisp and chilly as the tour wraps up. A truck rolls to a stop at the curb. It's a family with two young children, both wide-eyed and clearly captivated by the sight.
"Thank you, it's beautiful," the parents say.
Orly asks them to wait, scurries inside and returns bearing peppermint candy. He wishes the family a Merry Christmas, hands over the candy and waves them off into the night. More holiday cheer dispensed. Mission accomplished.