For 30 years, Orangevale's Dovewood Court has glowed in a haze of holiday lights, an outsized Christmas carnival where garages are transformed into Santa's workshops and front yards and rooftops become fanciful winterscapes.
This year, economic reality threatened to dim Dovewood's decorative displays. Three of the homes sat vacant. The foreclosures, auctions and short sales that struck so many Sacramento-area neighborhoods also took root in this tiny cul-de-sac off Walnut Avenue.
But neighbors refused to let the lights go out on Dovewood, banding together in the days after Thanksgiving to string bulbs and set up displays – most taken from their own collections – to decorate the vacant homes.
"It's such a tradition that we just didn't want to see any dark houses," said Jay Rowan, a young father and a relative newcomer to Dovewood Court. "Everybody knows everybody else, so we all asked, 'What's going on with (the houses)?' "
And then Dovewood went to work, calling up Realtors, talking with an investor who bought one of the homes, persuading them to let the neighbors plug in the lights.
"You can go to a neighbor and they'll do anything for you. It's an extended family. There's no way we would allow the homes to be dark for the public," said Dovewood resident Brenda Smith. "People just stepped up."
Smith has lived on Dovewood Court for 20 years, growing from uninitiated neighborhood newcomer to holiday-lights veteran.
This year, her yard carries an angels theme. All of her front yard angels glow in bright white light, but one angel is bathed in pink for a friend diagnosed with breast cancer.
At the entrance to the back yard, a holiday cipher: a lighted capital 'L' inside a circle with a slash. She smiled at the "plexer" (answer: No-el) as the first cars started their slow procession around the court.
Elaborately lighted holiday displays bring crowds by the thousands every December: Lines of headlights streaming in from neighborhoods across the region. Children with parents who themselves walked the same sidewalks when they were kids.
"That's what really touched me – young families with young kids who say, 'We're bringing our kids now,' " Smith said.
That's a common theme on Dovewood, and not just among the street's yuletide visitors.
Smith's neighbors on either side moved to Dovewood from other parts of town, Christmases past still fresh in their memories. It's likely one of the reasons they won't let the homes go dark. There's just too much history.
"It makes me feel proud that we've been able to do this. There was nothing standing in the way of keeping it up," Rowan said. "This was a tradition in my family. Friends told me they've been coming here for 20 years. It's something we've wanted to keep alive."
Jim Williams is a longtime Orangevale resident who has lived on Dovewood for the last 22 years. Before he moved his family across town, he would take his then-toddler son to the cul-de-sac to see the lights.
"My youngest was 4 years old when we moved here," Williams said. "Now, he's 26. The only way I can't do lights? I die or move."
His display is an amalgam of Christmas memories old and new – a mini-tribute to the holiday cable TV chestnut "A Christmas Story," (yes, the fishnet-sheathed leg lamp sits proudly in the window) – is a prominent feature.
As are an American flag on the roof and the words "Support Our Troops," lit in red, white and blue light, along the roofline.
A Vietnam War veteran, Williams erected the words in lights after the outbreak of war in Iraq. He vowed to post the words of support every holiday until they all came home. The words and the flag shone brightly on a recent Wednesday night.
A couple of boys walked past and shouted their approval.
"That's why we do it," Williams said. "I'm a 'bah, humbug,' guy the rest of the year, but this is exactly why we do it."