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Coralville’s North Pole

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | DECEMBER 12, 2013 5:00 AM

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Dave Bahnsen lives by one rule of thumb: There are no bad Christmas lights.

“Each yard is an empty canvas, and you can paint it however you want,” he said.

Bahnsen should know — he and wife Roxanne have adorned their Coralville property with thousands of holiday decorations for the past 22 years, including light strands, electric trains, animatronic displays, Nativity scenes, and every mix, make, and model of Santa figurines.

And the more décor they feature on their yard, roof, and windows, the more community members make a holiday tradition of visiting the Bahnsen’s home, which one young girl affectionately dubbed “the Santa House.”

“It has just kind of mushroomed,” Bahnsen said. “It makes me feel old, but people who came here as kids are starting to bring their own kids here. We had a guy propose to a girl in front of our house because they both remembered it being the happiest place of their childhood.”

The Bahnsens aren’t the only locals stoking the holiday spirit. For the past 33 years, the Coralville community has organized the Aisle of Lights, a grass-roots program which started by placing 127 “luminarias” — paper bags lit with candles — down a few neighborhoods streets.

In recent years, tens of thousands of luminarias have been set up in Coralville by residents, businesses, Boy Scouts, and other volunteers. Aisle of Lights itself has been expanded to a weekend of holiday tours and events taking place Saturday and Dec. 15, including a visit by a live Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Mr. Elf at the Santa House.

“[Aisle of Lights] started off in a very small section of town, and as it expanded, the community just wrapped their arms around it,” said former Coralville Finance Director Terry Kaeding. “The Santa House has been an official or unofficial part of Aisle of Lights since [the Bahnsens] have been doing it. It’s one of the main focuses of our bus tours.”

The Bahnsen family have grown to expect a large and diverse audience for their display, which offers grand spectacles and more subtle elements, including a deer-crossing sign with a lit Rudolph nose. They even have a sign that says “Merry Christmas” in 120 different languages — a favorite feature, Bahnsen said, of the international students and families who stop by.

“We’ve literally met people from all over the world,” he said. “It may be a culture shock for some. But it’s a more gentle, homey [display] than the big department-store Santa. He’s not in the store, he’s in our window. Kids are mesmerized by it.”

Bahnsen himself was fascinated by holiday decorations as a child in Clinton, when shop window displays were the biggest source of Christmas pageantry. In fact, Bahnsen said the first outdoor Christmas display can be traced to businessman Frank Iten of Clinton — a man whose community focus has not only moved Bahnsen to start his own display but to write an upcoming biography about Iten.

Bahnsen wasn’t the only one predestined to own the Santa House.

“Both our inspirations came from childhood experiences,” said Roxanne Bahnsen, who grew up in Oskaloosa, Iowa. “We blame it on each other, but it’s a mutual problem. We’re in it together.”

Herb Staub, one of the original Aisle of Lights organizers, said holiday displays require a great deal of togetherness, whether it’s in setting up the Santa House or lighting up to 30,000 luminarias around town. But he said the result is worth the work.

“One year, there was a blackout in Coralville, and everything was dark except the luminarias and the fresh snow,” Staub said. “There was just a glow. It’s things like that you remember and that keep you going.”

Despite the creaky noises made by their aging animated figures, the continual street traffic, the high electric bills, and the arduous setup and take-down process, the Bahnsens said they plan to keeping fueling holiday spirit until the Santa House’s 25th  anniversary — and maybe even longer.

“It’s just my way of giving back to community,” Dave Bahnsen said. “That’s kind of a hooky way of putting it, but it’s what I do.”

Still, he understands Christmas magic has its limits — namely, Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.

“People will ask, ‘do you leave this up all year?’” he said with a laugh. “Well, no. We want our neighbors to talk to us.”


Aisle of Lights Weekend
When: Saturday and Dec. 15
Where: Coralville locations, including the Santa House, 1489 Valley View Drive
Admission: Free and open to the public


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