Working for the Holidays: How Does a Christmas Decorator Do His Job?

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: You’re listening to working the show about what people do all day. I’m your host, Jordan Weisman, and this week we’re going to take a little break from our series about homelessness while I wrap up some final interviews for that one. And instead, we’re going to get into the holiday spirit. I interviewed James Bone of θ. He runs band are Christmas Decorations in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn. And he does Christmas lights. He decorates houses all around New York’s Tri-State area. But perhaps most importantly, he decorates houses in dika Heights, which if you’ve never heard of this neighborhood, it has over time become, dare I say, world famous.

S3: At least if you listen to, you know, TripAdvisor for its extremely, extremely elaborate and competitive Christmas light displays, the people who own these houses just go all out with the lights, with the santo’s, with the reindeer. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve seen a picture of it. But James likes to emphasize that unlike perhaps some of his competitors, he likes to take a more elegant approach with his lighting displays. And I thought it would be fun to talk to one of the people behind this little piece of the New York holiday season.

S2: Enjoy.

S4: What’s your name and what do you do?

S5: My name is James Bond Vina and I decorate homes for Christmas. You know, Christmas decorations.

S6: And we’re sitting here in your office in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

S5: You do most your work around here or where you decorate it, mostly like heights and the tri state area, Jersey.

S4: New York.

S5: Mostly Queens. Manhattan. Staten Island. And Brooklyn.

S4: Of all those places, Tiger Heights is probably the most famous. It’s sort of like almost a competitive sport here. Decorating houses for Christmas, right? Yes. I like could you could you describe the kinds of stuff that you see? Like what what what do these houses end up looking like?

S5: A lot of people are wanting to do more than the other client. Someone has an extra laminate and it’s every other person and put like three lambs in that activity.

S4: So it’s just a game of one shop in this neighborhood. And you look at like the pictures, you see them. It’s like dozens of Santo’s and just like the entire house covered in Miami. Mean, it’s it’s extreme, right? Yeah. Very extreme. Is there anywhere else that you work where you see that kind of decorating?

S5: Not that I have now, just mostly dark nights. Is that big area that has all you know? I do. All the big lights and all that. Well, a lot of homes now.

S4: So how long have you been doing Christmas decorating? How did you get into this?

S5: Twenty seven years. And have I got it? So it is. My dad was telling having his electric put on in the outside garden while I was doing Christmas lights, and the guy who was doing the electric said to me. Oh, I know a guy in dika Heights is looking to do his lights. You’re doing a good job. Yeah. He says, I’ll bring you over. So when I went over, he had to work as he owns a tile place, head to his work as telling lights, and then I know what they were doing. So I showed them what? So you know what to do. And I think I made seventy five dollars a day that. And while I was doing that, cars were passing by and let go. Oh, you do lights. And I was like, yeah, I do light. So I took those two guys and I went to the next house and from there on that car business.

S4: So it started off as something you did at home when you were young. And it just turned it into a business. Right. How long was it just you doing it?

S5: It was me. And then I had a friend help me for about maybe two years. And her husband helped me. And then after that, my cousins and brother help me. And then I started hiring guys. I am now.

S4: Are you mostly in the office now or are you out there hanging lights still? What’s your day to day?

S5: I’m both. I’m in the office doing estimates and I’m out there overseeing what the guys are doing.

S4: OK. So you’re in the. You’re kind of like the foreman on the crack abs.

S5: Well, I have three foremen and I have three trucks and each foreman is in charge of their jobs. But I have a head foreman that oversees everything and I oversee the whole business. But I in the beginning, I was out at zone rights myself all day.

S4: How many houses do you do in a year?

S5: Now we’re up to one eighty nine hundred eighty nine houses.

S4: Is that just for Christmas or is that all the houses you do during your for the holidays, too? It’s just for Christmas. Just for Christmas. And you know what kind of a time span are you doing all those houses?

S7: We start October 15th physically till February 1st, taking down everything.

S8: But we’re in the office doing estimates and, you know, getting ready for the business from August, from August. And that’s when it started. But then we do Valentines and St. Patty’s Day tell. So that’s another that’s another area. That’s another season. Yeah. The competitive Christmas decorating season basically starts in the summer. Yes, I would say so. For me. Yeah, for you. For the business. Start making wreaths. We start, you know, getting organized. We fix the clean up shops, order all material, get the materials, then organize that.

S6: Are you ordering stuff or you’re actually building decorations?

S7: We order the supplies and then we make what Rietz custom to whatever people want. Some people want green lights on. The rates were green balls and yellow gold balls. Some people want red bulls and blue balls.

S4: So you’re putting together supplies, you’re ordering like Santo’s and stuff like. You’re not building the plastic.

S8: Not that different. No, no, no, no. But we actually used to do animated figures. Oh, yeah. And we used to have another company who is to work with us. You’ll see them in like a Hydes animated film. A lot of soldiers that move their hands up and down. So we used to do that. Now that’s a thing of the past. We don’t do that anymore. What happened to the animated figures? They became too expensive. People don’t want to pay that kind of money. And it was a lot of a lot of people wanted the animated figures this season that they wanted their lights. And you had to pre-order the animated figures from the year before and people weren’t getting that.

S4: So who’s coming up with these decorative schemes? Me. You’re designing every single one. Where do you start with that?

S7: So what we do is we get a phone call. Then we asked for pictures of the house. I asked them if there’s anything special you’d like to do.

S8: But otherwise, I come up with a design. I oversee it with them. And then if they give me the OK, we’re gonna do it.

S6: Do you have like a design philosophy? Like, what is your what is your secret to putting together a proper.

S8: Lights display Aysel allegan, elegant, elegant, with lots of lights, but not gaudy. We make custom bows that are very rare. So that’s my signature. So if you go around my areas, like you’ll see all my bows, you know, that’s my house. It’s like, is that bow light up or is it. No, no. They don’t that. They just you know, someone else would never light up. That’s now hazily don’t do that. Or blow ups. Not really. Not in the blob’s. You do see a lot of blops.

S5: Yeah. I mean if people had them they wanted to put them up. But I’m not. I don’t. It’s not my style blob’s. It’s just too moi.

S8: Hasn’t Sanchez asked us. No man. Why AFAIK is more than blow up Sligh figures as opposed to plastic. Yeah, they they’re more elegant.

S6: And so when you’re designing a thing for clients, mostly clients, you come back to year after year or.

S5: Absolutely have a lot of clients come back with when we have like maybe fifteen percent who don’t do it and then we get more now, maybe 20 percent now the following year.

S4: How many lights can you have on a single house.

S9: So there’s a green that we do and Tiger hides. It’s on a third street. That house has 32000 lights.

S10: That’s the most lights I’ve done on our house on a single hop, I guess. Yeah. What’s like a typical house? I would say maybe like a thousand. So that thirty two thousand guy. That guy is going to take his. I can imagine his electricity bill.

S4: The actual installation is a dangerous work. Two people get hurt doing that to me. That’s like the stereotype about the dad at home falling off the roof. Go on, please.

S5: Luckily, nothing’s happened yet, but I make sure my men who work with me are safe. They wear straps on them on the ladders, they tie the ladders. And if it’s raining less now, we don’t work. You know, when we measure it’s joy.

S8: Yeah, that’s like that.

S4: And my philosophy is being safe isn’t like a secret actually installing the stuff that like most people who do this at home don’t know or I make sure everything is beautiful.

S11: That’s the secret.

S12: Now I’m on top of my guys if I see a house. There’s so many houses that oversee every house. But if there’s a house that I pass and my guys did it and I see there’s something wrong, I’ll make sure they go back and fix it. That’s why people call me back. If people’s lights around Imes County. I fix it. I will never leave people without their lights.

S4: Is there like a technical aspect to this? Like figuring out how like why are the circuits.

S8: Yeah, yeah, there is. We do electrical. You know, we make sure everything is custom. Everything’s separated when the electric is separated by amps and circuit breakers are separate and safe.

S4: And so part of the existence of part of this is actually sort of electrician. Yeah. Which we have. Oh, so you actually like it? Like you. You have electricians. You bring on the do. Yes. Is there like a point that becomes necessary for you? You usually out of certain scale?

S7: Yeah. Because we’re over. We have a lot of houses, so we need someone to go out and follow us after we do the lighting. We had someone come follow us and connect with them, someone at home.

S4: It’s not the kind of thing you could actually do without a professional unless you actually know how to do electrical goods.

S8: I mean, people do their own lights. But the big houses that I do, I don’t think they were gonna be able to do the electric. That’s why they hire us, because we separate. We make sure everything’s equal or the amperage is safe. Nothing burns out. Nothing but, you know, cause on fire or anything like that. I was gonna say, if you do it wrong, what’s the word? The worst thing that kind of growth would happen is the circum rates will go up, the lights will go out and they call me. Maybe some areas of the house have too many lights and the circuit board going and then we separated again. But you do have to think about all those we have to think about.

S10: That’s a big part of it. The electrical, very big. Is that some you diagram ahead of time or is it. Yes, you’ve got that. Especially on the big houses. Yeah. So that’s part of the design process.

S8: Small houses, you can basically use a small one plug or two plugs in one outlet and separated by that and do Esquire’s. But the big houses they you can go up to like fifteen outlets separated like eight times eight different areas.

S4: Yes. So part of the challenge here is to do these huge displays and not blow out the electricity in the whole house.

S7: Well, a big part of it is separating electricity. And that’s that’s a hard part.

S4: Are there particular color schemes that you that you like when you’re decorating light?

S8: It depends on the usually light. So some years it’s red and white. Yeah, 7 years it’s green and white. Some years it’s. Yeah. This year a lot of people are using multi more than usual. Yeah. Basically a lot of people use clear. I do one house that is green and I tell it to anybody else green. I do one house that is blue and like I don’t do anything else, anybody else that is below. Is that because you say I’m only going to do this because they are big clients and they pay good money. And I want to make sure that they are happy. And I don’t want to have everybody they don’t want to have anybody looking like their house. They’re paying for exclusivity. Or design. Yes, but I’ll do those lights in another area or I’ll do green and white. I want to walk green.

S4: And so you’ll go. Jersey. And doing Random House, but you won’t do on your own. People are kind of.

S8: Not now. Jersey. But I won zoning. Jack, guys. I do. Maybe in Benson Iris towalk Bay Ridge on Staten Island.

S4: Do you ever have to tell other clients? No. Sorry, I can’t do this because I’ve got. I’m only doing it for this guy here. It’s a couple. Yeah. Couple. Yeah. If they need to break some artim disappoint. This might sound like a dumb question, but are you like a big Christmas guy? Personally, I do. Like are you like.

S10: Really? I always was. Oh God. And this is like a dream. I love Christmas here. My whole family then.

S6: Like a religious family. Or is it?

S11: Yeah. Yeah, pretty much. I mean, we went to church. Catholic. Catholic. Catholics. Yeah. Yeah, I get it. I wouldn’t be a Jewish guy doing his thing and maybe not. Now it have a whole lot less. So it’s like. Yeah. You know. But we do some Jewish people. Yeah. You know, you do Hanukkah. Yeah. My Zen with their blue lights, especially in new ponds in Rockaway. Do they get competitive with them. No, no, no not it’s not the same now. They’re not trying to like always do any time. I mean to be funny.

S5: No. But Tiger Heights is the most competitive with Tiger Heights.

S6: Do you ever get complaints that like, oh, this guy’s house was better than mine? Like last year? Like, do people ever get, like, surly about that one year?

S12: I didn’t have a complaint. We did a house very similar. Yeah. Style. And it was on the same block. Oh, that’s. That’s the cardinal sin. Yeah.

S5: But I do houses not similar, but I have like a way I do houses that you could tell that I do the houses. But apparently she thought it was very similar which I didn’t say.

S4: Yeah. So it’s like you she thought it was more than just you leaving your signature, right. Yeah.

S9: It wasn’t just too close to. Why are you making it like my house? We’re on the same block. I know. God, yeah.

S4: How do you actually design a Christmas light installation? Like what do you use to do that?

S9: I do it by hand. Actually, I get two pictures and I do two different designs. And then I you know, I use markers or whatever. Nice sketch. Everything. Now I call the client, either send other pitches and they oversee it. They pick one.

S4: And that’s how we do it. So you get a picture of the house? Yeah.

S9: I literally just I design a wood red marker markers and have anima and then my guys get the sketch if I choose and they follow that sketch. Then once we do the house, we take a picture of the house and then for the following, yeah, they know what to do.

S4: Clients will do the same design year after year.

S5: Yeah. So it’s as though you had something. Well maybe not do something a little bit different.

S10: So but it is just like it’s a by hand thing. It’s like by hand. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It takes too long for the computer. I just sketch a quip was I’m an artist. You’re an artist. Are some an art therapist on site. Oh yeah. Yeah. Oh cool. So this is hard work, especially kids. So. Very neat. So you got two jobs. Yes. I only work three days a week. Because this has become it’s growing. So you do art therapy and children start three to five year olds? I do. That was I love it. We do a lot of sensory Play-Doh painting. Manipulative with their hands. And so this is then kind of. Right.

S8: This is I always knew that I was a teacher, regular teacher. You know, a teacher from pre-K. Then I became an out there was brought and then this is growing. So now I’m not so I mean, this is becoming this is my thing.

S6: You were a teacher when you started doing lights.

S10: US I was an assistant teacher when I started doing this. Then I became a teacher and became a therapist. So you’ve been doing these two things that, you know, it’s a lot to handle. Yeah. Growing this business was exhausting. But I love it. I love this.

S4: Sounds like, you know, part of the fun is probably also like kids have to love the lights, too. Let’s get to that part of satisfaction.

S5: Yeah, absolutely. People come from around the world. There’s bus tours that come from Jersey and Canal Street. And I have to see the view, the lights. Yeah.

S4: Do you ever try, like, scout out which houses are getting like the most attention from tourists?

S9: No. But what I’m going to do eventually is when I wanted zerwas, I want to make a sketch of all of it’s like a map of all the houses that I so that I could put on Google so that people can see all the houses that I do.

S10: Yeah, that’s cool. Coming here anyway, I’m asar as well. All right. They come to see my houses walls.

S4: Yeah. So you I mean you’ve been living and working here for decades now. Do you know how did Christmas in Indigo Heights become a thing that you know, like how did it get so competitive?

S9: I won’t use the word competitive. I would just say how. Why did people come to see the lights? Yeah. How did that become? I don’t know. Somebody’s got a good ideato. I mean, I’ve always done houses. People always used to come around. But now it’s become with the tour buses it’s become I think it’s it the ten things to say at this time. If you go on, go on, say if you come from another country and you come in to visit New York, know 10 things to do in New York City at this time is go see Tankan lights, high lights.

S10: Huh. Dowser people see that and they come since you’re getting a flood of people like TripAdvisor. Yeah, absolutely right.

S4: So, I mean, the stakes are higher for the people who are people who are doing what’s coming of go wrong in this business.

S9: Wow. I had. Truck that I said my friend was getting married, getting married in Long Island. And as a gift, I. He asks me to decorate the backyard, the tent. So I set my guys there and I did a sketch of the tent which will click a little house and my guys came back. I asked him, is everything okay? Yeah. Everything came out perfect. Okay. So I get a call from my friend. He goes, Chains. What happened? I go, What do you mean goes? The house looks great, but they didn’t decorate the tent. They decorated the house. I’m like, what? I was like, I could not believe this. They decorated the house instead of the town, so I had to send them back. I left that up and go back and decorate the tent. I was so upset.

S6: If there’s one thing people need to know about this line of work, what is it like if you want to see people know one thing about your job? What would it be?

S9: It’s a lot of work. People don’t understand that if we price a house and it seems like it’s a little pricey, it’s because we’ve got to pay staff. We got to pay insurance. We gotta pay for material. We’ve got to. We gotta pay for why we’ve got to do screws. It’s just a cost. A lot of money. It’s just not just growing our roofs. It’s very tedious. Yeah. So that’s you know, that’s the one thing I want to know is that if we do charge a house and it seems like it’s a little more than they want to do, it’s because it’s a lot of work.

S4: Is that an issue of clients? You think you’re sending a few guys on a roof with some lights?

S9: Yeah. You know, sometimes we estimate a house that could be like maybe we don’t know, eight hundred dollars or a thousand dollars and oh, that’s too much. But, you know, we’re doing a house for that much. I mean, we’re going on a roof. So it takes a lot of work. And then we’ve got it’s come back and take it down.

S4: So that’s why, of course, that people are at labor, materials insurance at all.

S9: i- everything. Car insurance. Truck rentals heads up, if you will. That’s the risk of doing it. You want to hire someone to do it. I think people just go on Google and just want to. Yeah. Oh, let me just see how much it is. But when we do the it takes time for the phone call for the process to do and estimates do the drawing to call you back to say, oh, I don’t want to do it now is too much. So it’s like why are you calling. It’s second every two hundred dollars.

S4: So that’s a problem. It’s like perceptions a little about this year.

S9: Yeah. I mean we’re reasonable. Prices are reasonable. People think they’re not. I don’t think they know what it entails to do a house.

S10: Now they should try to do it themselves. Exactly. And thanks for coming in personally. Thanks for having them.

S2: That’s it for this week’s episode of Working. I hope you enjoyed the show. If you did, please leave us out of your Apple podcasts. And of course, you know, send me an e-mail at working at Slate.com. Working is produced by Jessamine Molly. A special thank you to Justin Debride for the ad music. We’ll be back with hopefully finishing up the homelessness season the next couple of weeks. Enjoy.