‘Mr. Christmas’ marks 30th year as keeper of the light
More than 15,000 people visit Bill and Elaine Gilfillen’s heavily decorated “Christmas on Knob Hill” display in San Marcos each year
Back in 1986, Bill and Elaine Gilfillen moved to San Marcos with their four children and were so excited to have a big yard to decorate for the holidays that they spent lavishly on Christmas lights and seasonal lawn ornaments that year.
While the display delighted the Gilfillens and their neighbors, their 10-year-old daughter, Jennifer, gave it a thumbs down. So the next year, her parents vowed to wow her.
The result was “Christmas on Knob Hill,” an extravagant holiday light display that’s celebrating its 30th anniversary this month at 1639 Knob Hill Road. More than 100,000 lights decorate the massive hilltop display of several hundred illuminated, blinking, whirring and twirling Santas, reindeer, snowmen, sled dogs, elves, candy canes, teddy bears, tin soldiers, Christmas trees, fish, pigs, horses and so much more.
Each year, Bill Gilfillen — who’s known by neighbors as “Mr. Christmas” — spends three months setting up the front-yard display, and then sits out front each night from Thanksgiving to Dec. 30 to greet his hordes of visitors.
Thanks to social media and “holiday lights” maps, the Gilfillens’ home has become one of the county’s most-visited spots during the Christmas season, drawing somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors during the five-week illumination. Elaine said she’s met visitors from England, Lebanon, Australia and Japan as well as groups that drive in from Los Angeles and Arizona.
Gilfillen, a retired Navy flight engineer who turns 80 in January, doesn’t get around quite as nimbly as he used to. But he vows to continue the tradition as long as he can climb a ladder.
“I look forward to setting it up each year because I know how much happiness it brings to people, especially in times like these,” he said.
Among those many fans are Katie and Justin Ray of Escondido, who have been coming for the past five years. Last Friday, they spent nearly 45 minutes walking among the displays with their excited 2-year-old son, Derek, before stopping to thank Gilfillen on the way back to their car.
“Every year there’s more and more stuff,” Katie said. “It’s exciting to come each year and see what’s new. It always puts me in the holiday spirit.”
Christmas lights hold special meaning for Gilfillen, 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.
“I loved going around to look at the lights. I thought they were beautiful,” he said. “To me, that was Christmas.”
After being challenged to ramp up his holiday decor 30 years ago, Gilfillen turned the planning for his winter display into a year-round hobby. Each January, he carefully takes down the decorations and puts them away in a nearby storage locker and two backyard sheds. Then he starts shopping.
He usually adds a couple dozen new items each year to keep things fresh. This year’s additions include three new “Star Wars” characters (including the rolling robot BB-8), a pirate ship, a nutcracker, a soldier saluting the flag, a horse and carriage and a large, glowing, white icicle tree.
They join a huge ensemble of items that include a collection of large, illuminated dogs, each named for a beloved pet from the past, a koi pond, a moving merry-go-round, motorized Santas, Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, a flying pig with flapping wings, a four-foot Statue of Liberty, an Iditarod-style sled team on the roof, a purple peacock and an oversize “elf on the shelf” perched over the garage.
His favorite decoration for many years has been a large illuminated Santa seated on a bench near the driveway “who looks so real that he could almost get up and walk away.” He’s also fond of a new animated jack-in-the-box that has a snowman popping out of a wrapped present.
While the “Star Wars” figures are getting a lot of attention from visitors this year, Elaine Gilfillen said they’re not the most popular attraction. Instead, she points to her beaming husband.
“Everybody who comes wants to say hello to Mr. Bill,” she said.
The set-up process begins each year on Sept. 1. Despite receiving many offers for help from neighbors and family, Gilfillen likes to do the whole job himself.
“I’m very particular about how things are set up,” he said. “I like to change how everything is arranged each year and only I know where things were last time.”
He turns the lights on each year on Thanksgiving night, always to a large crowd of neighbors who walk over after turkey dinner to applaud the debut. The lights are on from 5-9 p.m. every night. Before the Gilfillens got solar panels four years ago, their December electric bill topped $2,000. Now it’s down to a manageable $600.
The season highlight is always the arrival of Santa Claus. Each year, Gilfillen dons a red velvet Santa suit sewed by his wife and late mother-in-law and he takes requests from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Dec. 13 through 23. Last year, more than 2,700 kids queued up for a lap-sit.
Over the years, Gilfillen has had both of his hips replaced as well as spinal surgery, so pulling together the Christmas display gets harder and takes longer each year. But he said it’s worth it for the smiles he sees on childrens’ faces each night.
Last weekend, 30-year-old Nate Hogue stood on the sidewalk and quietly admired the spectacle for several minutes. He’s been coming ever since 1996 when he was in fifth grade. After high school, he went to college in San Luis Obispo and then worked in L.A. before moving back to Escondido a few years ago. He said stopping by Christmas on Knob Hill is like revisiting a treasured piece of his childhood.
“I try to come every year,” Hogue said. “It’s like this little island of light surrounded by a sea of darkness.”
“Christmas on Knob Hill”
Where: 1639 Knob Hill Road, San Marcos
Lights: 5-9 p.m. nightly through Dec. 30
Santa visits: 6:30-8 p.m. Dec. 13-23