Joy to the World
Spectacular display is couple’s glittering gift for one and all
Under the spell of the holiday spirit, many of us relinquish just enough spare time to string some lights around the eaves and decorate a tree. Then there is Renee Kowalske and her husband, Keith, a couple so overflowing with joy, cheer and goodwill that they had to build a house to house the Christmas decorations that they put on, in and around the home where they live.
As Christmas approaches, the Kowalske compound in Lake Washington is probably visible from space, given the number of lights and ornaments on the acre-and-a-half property. Droves drive by and even stop in. This delights the Kowalskes, who have been welcoming friends and strangers with a light show that is an annual must-see. For the past 20 years, Linda Rauscher and her out-of-town niece and nephew have basked in the glow of the Kowalske decorations. “It’s a Christmas tradition,” she said.
“A lot of people tell us they just follow the glow,” Renee said.
Families plan their Christmas card photos around the decor. A college basketball team chilled there after a tournament. Retirees amble across the Kowalske lawn. Kids romp through Deer Park, where a herd of illuminated, glittery deer graze through the season. “We’ve gotten a lot of thank you notes from people we don’t even know,” Renee said.
The couple begins decorating indoor spaces before Halloween is even a gleam in kids’ eyes. They would have also decorated outdoors early, but experience taught them that squirrels are way too fond of the vast network of electric cords needed. “We have over 12,000 lights on the roof alone — and that’s not counting icicles,” Keith said. Renee estimates the total to be well over 200,000. That’s a lot of lights — and a huge boost to Florida Power & Light’s coffers until LED came into the picture. “Now that we have all LEDs, it’s [only] about $150 a month more to light,” Keith said.
Don’t ask what they paid for electricity before.
JUST LIKE MOM
Renee credits the start of the Kowalske holiday extravaganza to her very appropriately named mom, Joy. Her Christmas Eve gatherings are remembered fondly by long-time friend Denise Moore. “Joy decorated every room of her house beautifully,” she said. “Eventually, Renee took over the Christmas Eve soiree. The display has become larger and more breathtaking every year. What I enjoy the most is Renee’s and Keith’s desire to share their display with the community.
“They are the everlasting light of Christmas.”
When they married, the young couple was often gifted holiday décor by family. They added to their cache by becoming frequent attendees at after-Christmas and estate sales, picking up items here and there. “Little by little, you get drawn in,” Keith said. The decorations were originally stored in the garage and later in two 20-foot-by-20-foot storage units. Still, it was not enough.
In 2018, they built the Christmas Cottage in their backyard. The 1,000-square-foot country vernacular house, air conditioned and insulated, features an ample porch and a second floor. “It was designed after my great-grandma’s house in West Virginia,” Renee said. During the holidays, the cute cottage shimmers with lights. The rest of the year, it houses lights — plus lots more Christmas stuff — inside. “The second floor is so packed you can hardly walk up there,” Keith said.
By the time Keith gets to the job of outdoor lights, Renee has already been busy putting up wreaths and trees for weeks. “There are trees everywhere inside the house,” he said. Renee’s current tree census lists two nine-footers, one eight-footer, three seven-footers, four six-foot-tall trees, one four-and-a-half, 13 four-footers, one three-and-a-half and one two-and-a-half — for a forest of 26 trees scattered through every room in the house, not counting myriad saplings. She says that a nine-footer can boast more than a thousand ornaments and 1,200 lights. We’ll take her word for it.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, after the interior is decorated, Keith enlists his nephew Derek Troutman’s help for two weekends of clambering up and down the roofline. “We can’t let the public down,” he said. That public arrives by car, golf cart and bicycle to stare in awe. They park their vehicles and walk into the yard. Traffic jams have been known to occur. “I’ve had to wait 15-20 minutes to get into the driveway,” Renee said. And she doesn’t mind doing it again, just to witness the happiness her home brings to people she doesn’t even know.
Besides the arch, the eight-foot Ferris wheel, the innumerable Santas and snowmen, the reindeer herd, the dogs, cats, gingerbread house, gingerbread men, polar bears and horses, a huge alligator takes pride of place for these big-time University of Florida fans. “We place him so he looks like he is coming out of the woods,” Renee said. A lifetime of Christmas decorating has made the Kowalskes well versed on subjects such as the innate charm of vintage blow molds, those hollow plastic figures of Santa, snowmen, reindeer and others that lit up backyards of long ago [think Clark Griswold’s Santa and reindeer in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation]. In 2004, the year that back-to-back hurricanes hit Brevard, Renee’s Hurricane Tree was a showstopper of storm humor. Its limbs were all leaning one way, its skirt was a blue tarp, shingles and soffit pieces served as ornaments and a flashlight was the tree topper.
Several years ago, while working at a small retail shop, Rose Tant mentioned to some customers that her grandson would be visiting for Christmas. “Without missing a beat, a voice rang out with ‘Bring him over to see our decorations,’” Tant recalled. The customer was Renee Kowalske.
A New York transplant, Tant was skeptical — particularly when the stranger mentioned that it would be fine to pull into her driveway, walk around the property and ring the doorbell, because Tant and her grandson would be welcome inside. But after her grandson arrived, Tant put her reservations aside and decided to see if she could find the house.
“Well, there was no need for directions,” she said.
“Heading north on Turtle Mound Road, the holiday glow was visible from afar. We immediately knew this was something special. We turned in and were transported to the North Pole. We did walk the property in awe of the attention paid to every detail.”
Now a friend of the Kowalskes, Tant has seen the couple extend the same warm welcome to all who cross their paths. “Not only have the lights and decorations stayed with all of us, but also the fact that this couple embodies the true meaning of holiday spirit with generosity, inclusiveness and a heck of a lot of Christmas fun,” she said.
Come see the show
The Kowalske holiday light spectacular is at 3955 White Road in the Lake Washington area of Melbourne. Follow the signs — and the lights.
Maria is a prolific writer and proofer for Space Coast Living and an adjunct professor at Florida Institute of Technology’s Nathan M. Bisk College of Business. When not writing, teaching or traveling, she can be found waging a one-woman war against her lawn and futilely attempting to maintain order among the chaos of a pack of extremely clueless wirehair dachshunds and an angst-driven basset hound.