Since 1968, come rain or shine, Joan Sue Betson's yard on Galaxy Drive in Newport Beach has been a Christmas Eve beacon.
In old photos, hundreds of candles can be seen glowing inside brown paper bags side by side on a retaining wall in front of the sprawling Spanish-style home and lining the driveway. Rows of the homemade luminarias shine from window sills and light the porch.
"It used to be quite an event to walk out here every year," said neighbor John Senick, who has lived behind the house for about seven years, in an interview with Times Community News.
Betson died early this year. She was 82. The house has since been sold, and her family will start spending their holidays elsewhere.
But not before the Betsons paid a small tribute to Joanie, as family members and neighbors knew her, Tuesday evening.
Rather than covering the lawn with 400 to 500 candles, as Betson would have done, Betson's children and grandchildren lit just a few. They flickered in the fading light on that retaining wall.
A larger bag glowed with a cross and "JSB" and "2013" written in black.
Senick's wife, Janet Kraus, also brought a couple of candles to honor their neighbor's memory, though in years past, Senick said, they had just looked at the lights.
Betson had always insisted on decorating with a luminaria display like the ones in Albuquerque, N.M., where her family lived before moving to California, her children recalled.
"My mom always enjoyed the thought behind the luminarias, which was to light Christ into your home on Christmas Eve," said the longtime Newport Beach resident's son, Lance Betson. "We loved how it looked."
Neighbor Miki Sholkoff, who has lived across from the house since 1978, said the street was most impressive around the holidays when other homes were similarly decked out.
"It was fun when everybody was doing it," she remembered. "Everybody used to come out."
Betson enlisted friends and neighbors for help — even when keeping the flames lit during challenging weather conditions felt like a chore.
"The one year she got everybody motivated to do it, that's when the Santa Ana winds kicked up," Lance Betson said with a laugh. "We had the one shot to make some converts, and after that everyone was like, I'm over it."
Still, the family kept up the tradition.
And year after "back-breaking" year, the homemade lights drew visitors from as near as the homes next door and as far away as Kentucky, Betson's daughter Pam Barnett said.
As dusk turned to night Tuesday, Lance Betson rounded up his two kids to head back to Costa Mesa. They planned to light candles at their house.
Cowan writes for Times Community News.