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San Marcos’ ‘Mr. Christmas’ is taking a pandemic break

Bill Gilfillen stands amid Christmas lights in his front yard
Bill Gilfillen, a retired Navy flight engineer, stands in the Christmas display at his San Marcos home known as “Christmas on Knob Hill” in 2017.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Beginning at sunset every night since Thanksgiving, cars have been pulling up every few minutes in front of Bill and Elaine Gilfillen’s hilltop San Marcos home. But this year, the drivers are pulling away just as quickly in sadness and alarm, rather than delight.

For the first time in 33 years, the Gilfillens’ annual 100,000-bulb holiday lighting spectacle, known as Christmas on Knob Hill, has gone dark. Because Bill will turn 83 in January, many regular visitors have been worried that poor health had forced him to retire his unofficial title as northern San Diego County’s “Mr. Christmas.”

But the reason for this year’s temporary lighting layoff is the coronavirus pandemic.

“We did this for the good of the community, to keep people from grouping together in the front yard,” Elaine said. “I didn’t want to be the mask police out there every night and didn’t want anyone touching Bill. By next year we’ll be able to do it again, since we’ll have the vaccine to help us.”

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The only thing on the Gilfillens’ front lawn this year is a small sign announcing the cancellation, though Elaine said they’re thinking of adding a statue of Santa Claus wearing a face mask to keep the sign company.

Usually from Thanksgiving Eve until Dec. 30, the home at 1639 Knob Hill Rd. is bedazzled with well over 100,000 twinkling holiday lights and more than 100 illuminated and, in many cases, animated, lawn, tree and roof sculptures. Up to 20,000 people visit each holiday season, arriving in carloads from L.A., Arizona and Mexico, and by busloads from area senior communities. Many visitors who came as children are now bringing their own young families.

Bill Gilfillen waves at cars in front of his heavily decorated home
Bill Gilfillen waves at passing cars in the front yard of his San Marcos home in December 2017.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune )

The Gilfillens made the decision to cancel this year’s show many months ago, since Bill — a retired Navy flight engineer — usually starts his annual decorating preparations on Sept. 1. The display he’s been gradually building each year since 1987 takes him nearly three months to unpack, test the lights, plan the design and execute entirely by himself. Every year he adds a few new items and he always creates an entirely different layout of lights and decorations.

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Christmas lights hold special meaning for Bill, whose Grove City, Ohio, family was so poor in the early 1940s that he and his siblings spent several years in a church-run orphanage because their mother couldn’t afford to care for them. Walking through the snow to admire the holiday décor was the one present the Gilfillen siblings could give themselves.

Not being able to decorate this year has been a big disappointment for Bill, because he misses interacting with the visitors each night. Usually for the two weeks before Christmas, he dresses up every night as Santa Claus and provides lap-sitting time and candy canes to nearly 3,000 children. That loss comes on top of him not being able to see much of his children and grandchildren this year because of the pandemic.

“I’m just doing what I can to keep his spirits up,” Elaine said. “It’s been hard for him.”

Although the Gilfillens can’t give the community their usual holiday cheer this year, Elaine said the community has been giving back. Friends and neighbors have been calling to check in on them frequently, and recently someone left a poinsettia plant on their front porch.

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“It was a thank you for all of the years we’ve been doing Christmas on Knob Hill,” she said. “That was nice.”

Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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