For the ninth year in a row, the Alexander family of Buellton, known for their over-the-top Christmas lights display that illuminates chilly winter nights, will gather donations for their holiday toy drive that benefits children in the Santa Ynez Valley.
The Christmas Basket Program, a toy drive started by the Old Mission Santa Inés parish 15 years ago, is designed to give Santa Ynez Valley families who are experiencing financial challenges and have minor children (17 years of age and under), a little reprieve during the holiday season.
Michelle Alexander and her husband, Dan, after years of entertaining droves of passersby from throughout the Valley and beyond with a colorful light show sequenced with cheerful holiday music, decided to take it a step further than just lights and add an extra measure of heart.
"We were getting so much traffic and thought, 'we have to do something more with this,'" explained Michelle.
That was nine years ago.
Since then they have teamed up with Mission Santa Inés to bring more attention to the nonprofit's annual toy drive, collecting gifts for kids who might otherwise go without.
"Last year was a slow year due to the fire, but our biggest year I think we got about 163 toys. On average we get (donations) anywhere between 100 to 150 toys," Michelle said. "The more we get the word out, the better."
With the flip of a switch on Dec. 1, the Alexanders' elaborate, high-tech LED lights show officially began. But what most don't see is the work that goes into making it a magical experience that calls families back year after year.
Each year for the last 10 years, according to Michelle, their display has gotten bigger and more elaborate as they’ve added more of everything -- all controlled by sophisticated software.
"LEDs can now be anything, the technology has really evolved from just twinkling white lights," she said.
Michelle recalls when they first started only 16 strands went on and off and said now the production includes something over 50,000 lights. On top of that, putting on the intricately designed production isn’t cheap as it involves LED lights, wiring, display materials, power supplies, and the electricity needed to run the lights, power supply units, cooling and inflation fans. However, since the couple added solar power to their home, they've been able to mitigate some of the cost.
In addition to the daily planning leading up to the holiday season, "Dan puts in 40 hours a week starting late September -- on top of his full-time job," she explained.
He spends these many hours programming each light bulb, soldering wires and building custom-made light strings that outline all aspects of their 410 Dogwood Drive home.
"He's not a computer person. He doesn't have an IT background," Michelle said. "But Dan does a lot of research about what others are doing, what songs are out, and whatever light technology is trending. He tweaks it so every year is different." She adds that this year will feature music from the Greatest Showman, a musical film.
She said the entire light and music show, which will run nightly rain or shine, lasts 20 to 25 minutes before it repeats itself.
But all in all, Michelle said the process is a yearlong labor of love that drives Dan to make each year bigger and better than the year before.
"It's just magical. It's almost like Vegas or Disneyland landed on my front lawn," she said laughing.
The toy collection and display show run concurrently at the Alexander home, 410 Dogwood Drive in Buellton, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. A large donation bin will be outside until Dec. 15. Toy donations should be new and unwrapped, with a specific focus on the hard-to-buy-for age group: 10 to 17. Cash donations are also accepted, with 100 percent paid to the Christmas Basket Program. Free candy canes and cookies will be available nightly as well as hot apple cider for 50 cents a cup.
For more information about the Old Mission Santa Inés toy drive, visit https://missionsantaines.org/christmas-basket-program