Photography by Bradley Meinz

I’m a Real-Life Clark Griswold

Every December, Rick Grimes and his neighbors go all-out on Christmas decorations for L.A.’s famed ‘Candy Cane Lane’

For the past 15 years, Rick Grimes and his family have lived in and contributed to Candy Cane Lane — a three-square-block section of the Los Angeles’ Woodland Hills neighborhood that transforms into a makeshift Christmas wonderland each December. Thousands of Angelenos descend on the neighborhood to see the elaborate displays people have constructed in their front yards. And while neighbors aren’t required to decorate their homes, per se, there’s a tacit expectation that each homeowner will make an effort to impress.

The scene calls to mind Christmas Vacation, when Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) breaks the power grid with his immaculate Christmas light display. But unlike Griswold, who’s driven mad by his efforts, Grimes takes delight in decorating. Candy Cane Lane is about community for him, not competition.

Rick Grimes, 71, Woodland Hills (Los Angeles)

I first moved to Candy Cane Lane in 2001 from Studio City. But I had been aware of Candy Cane Lane long before then. My wife, my son and I visited Candy Cane Lane every year, going up and down the streets to watch the decorations.

Years later, my son moved into his own home in Woodland Hills, and he started pushing us to move close to him. He eventually found a home there that was a great buy for us, and it just happened to be in the Candy Cane Lane section. It was a coincidence.

When we moved in, we were told, “Everybody puts up decorations for Christmas, and you’ve got to be prepared for the onslaught of visitors.”

Prior to living there, we were pretty standard when it came to Christmas decorations. We’d have a tree and maybe some lights outside. But it felt like a little bit of a chore.

But living in Candy Cane Lane, we felt a responsibility to do more. We’ve got to hold up our end of this for the sake of the neighborhood. We wanted to go all out, so when people drove by they would go, “Wow, look at that.”

We covered the fence, the house and the trees in lights. We put a bunch of wooden cutouts in the front yard — Santa, penguins on ice skates, a polar bear and its cub — and illuminated them with spotlights. We had Christmas trees and a nativity scene.

The big hit was the animatronic Santa Claus. He sang Christmas songs and moved his arms to the music. In fact, he was so popular he presented a problem. One night we saw lights flashing in the front yard and went to see what was going on. Some guy had set up in front of the Santa and was charging people to take photos with him. I had to go out and tell him to move along. “We don’t charge for anything here.”

That first year was amazing. It got us so in the Christmas spirit, like nothing else we’ve ever done. It’s not the decorations so much, it’s the people’s reactions — seeing all the joy and laughter on people’s faces (especially the kids). We spent a lot of time out front just watching people go by.

Growing up, my family wasn’t huge on Christmas decorations. We’d put up a tree, but we didn’t decorate the outside or anything. We did enjoy driving around California, though, because each town had an area where everyone went all out decorating. But living in a community like that changed my view about decorating.

Our display grew each year after that. Each year we’d add more lights. At its height, we had about 30 strings of lights up. When the family next door to us moved, they gave us their Christmas village buildings — a bunch of 3 by 3 by 3 wooden structures that made up a miniature town, with houses and a candy factory. We ended up making a drive-in theater to go along with it. It eventually got to the point where I had to have a shed in my yard just for our Christmas decorations.

It took us three days to put up, and three days to take down. We would have the entire family over to decorate — us, our son, our grandkids. There was no stress involved, though. Everyone enjoyed doing it.

Our display is a little more modest now. My wife and I are retired and aren’t as energetic as we used to be. We put a lot of blow-up characters and laser lights because they don’t take as much time as stringing lights. But I love the results. And I still have my singing Santa Claus.

And Candy Cane Lane is still a festival each Christmas. The streets shut down each night. There’s bumper-to-bumper traffic, marching bands, police on horseback, vendors selling toys and hot chocolate. A drive through the neighborhood that would normally take me 30 seconds takes me 20 minutes.

It’s “recommended” you decorate, but you don’t have to. And there are some homes that don’t decorate for religious reasons, and that’s okay. People in the neighborhood understand. They don’t gossip about the homes that don’t participate.

The tradition is sure to live on. New families move in and take up decorating with the same enthusiasm we did. A new couple just moved into a house on our block, and they’re doing a bunch of construction on it before moving in. And even they decorated their front yard. They don’t even live in the house yet, but they have decorations on it.

An interesting thing about Candy Cane Lane: When people move away, they usually leave their decorations for the new family that moves in. And the people who move away usually go back to normal Christmas decorations.

Candy Cane Lane is the sum of its parts. It’s seeing other homes lit up that makes you excited to do yours. It’s about community.

If people dread putting up Christmas lights, they have the wrong attitude about it. It should be fun, something you do out of love because you want to please people. Not out of some obligation to keep up with the Joneses.