Spreading the joy

Nancy and Rodney Brown dress as Santa and Mrs. Claus, welcoming thousands to their extravagant holiday setup from Thanksgiving to the first Sunday in January in Inver Grove Heights.
Nancy and Rodney Brown dress as Santa and Mrs. Claus, welcoming thousands to their extravagant holiday setup from Thanksgiving to the first Sunday in January in Inver Grove Heights. (Submitted photo)

Kaitlyn Roby/Review

Kaitlyn Roby/Review

Brady and Gabriel, neighbors of Nancy and Rodney Brown who have been setting up an elaborate Christmas display for more than a decade, view a display box full of toys. (submitted photo)

Inver Grove Heights couple are ‘Santa and Mrs.’ to neighbor kids, light-show fans

Santa Claus lives on a quiet street in Inver Grove Heights.

At least he does according to 2-year-old Brady and 4-year-old Gabriel.

Their neighbors, Nancy and Rodney Brown, not only dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus every night for more than a month during the holidays, but they set up thousands of dollars worth of lights in their yard.

With dozens of statues, themed display boxes (including Disney’s “Frozen”) and inflatable decorations, the Browns’ yard is a glowing winter wonderland from Thanksgiving to the first Sunday in January, welcoming thousands of visitors to the elaborate setup.

Embodying the role

But, even when the decorations are all packed up and crammed into the basement and garage, the Browns’ house at 8450 Ann Marie Trail is still the North Pole to the kids in the neighborhood. It helps that Rodney has a white beard and long, dyed-white hair and Nancy has a frequent, jolly laugh that lights up her whole face and twinkling blues eyes, both traits befitting of Santa’s spouse.

“They really do believe that it’s Santa’s house,” says Heather Caulkins, the mother of Brady and Gabriel. “Even in the summer when they see him mowing the lawn, they say, ‘Oh, that’s Santa mowing the lawn.’”

It’s a common assumption in that age group: even the two youngest of the Browns’ four grand-kids believe their grandpa is Santa.

The Browns’ Christmas light tradition started 19 years ago, the year they were married, with only a church, a manger scene and a few Santas.

Now, with upwards of $5,000 in decorations alone, not to mention the trimmings donated by friends and family and built by Rodney himself, they draw up to 1,500 people on some Saturdays to their “Santa Village.”

Limos and buses full of people stop by while on lights tours; kids have sleepovers in the area, just to be able to explore the extensively  illuminated yard.

Can’t stop now

Over the years, the Browns’ penchant for adding a little more every Christmas seemed to snowball.

“It just happened,” Nancy says. “Every year, we add four or five things. This year, we added 50 things.”

The preparation period has grown in proportion.

While others are enjoying late-season picnics or even swimming on Labor Day, the Browns start checking Christmas lights.

As the leaves turn, they’re pulling out decorations precariously packed in the garage rafters. Then begins the process of plugging things in without disrupting the house’s electrical system.

“That’s the hardest part: Plugging everything in without blowing the circuits,” Nancy says.

Nancy’s been putting in the bulk of the work lately. Rodney has been recovering from pneumonia; he has strict orders to stay inside and get better so he can be Santa.

With lights come smiles

They try to turn the lights on every night from 5-10 p.m., and greet people as Mr. and Mrs. Claus from 6-8 p.m. during the week and 5-9 p.m. on the weekends. They pass out candy canes and small toys to the children who visit.

Along with the time investment, there’s the electric bill. Every December, it skyrockets to about 20 times pricier than usual.

But the smiles and the wonder they see when visitors arrive are priceless.

Even after a hard year for the couple, including two burglaries, they continue to work hard to “share the joy.”

“No robbery; no bad things are going to stop us from sharing the joy,” says Nancy, a full-time administrative assistant. “There’s still hope. There’s still love. I’m not going to have bad things prevent me from being here.”

“It’s just been here for people, something to believe in,” says Rodney, an energy auditor for a non-profit (ironic, he knows). He started dressing up as Santa for Christmas in his 20s when he worked for his aunt and uncle at their foster home.

Ever since, the delight of kids of all ages at seeing Santa has kept Rodney in the role.  

“We’re just here to make people happy, which makes us happy.”

For Caulkins’ family, the joy is spread throughout the year.

“They embody the spirit of Christmas in my mind,” the mother of two says. “They’re so warm and giving and joyful, you feel like you’re visiting a special place. I see them sitting outside for hours on cold evenings.

“That takes a special person to enjoy that so much.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.


Who: Nancy and Rodney Brown, also known   as Santa and Mrs. Claus.

What:  Elaborate holiday display, including a large manger scene, a Santa Village and display boxes featuring characters from Disney’s “Frozen,” claymation Rudolph figurines and Barbie scenes. New this year is a photo booth, but the Browns recommend bringing cameras ­— and boots — to wind through the village and snap a photo with Santa.

When: Thanksgiving (Nov. 27) through the first Sunday in January. Lights are on from 5-10 p.m. most nights. The Clauses will be there to greet visitors from 6-8 p.m. most weeknights and 5-9 p.m. most weekends.

Where: 8450 Ann Marie Trail, Inver Grove Heights.

Donations for the local food shelf and Toys for Tots will be accepted. Join the Facebook group: Santa’s House in Inver Grove Heights, MN.


From the neighbors:

“They embody the spirit of Christmas in my mind, They’re so warm and giving and joyful, you feel like you’re visiting a special place. I see them sitting outside for hours on cold evenings. That takes a special person to enjoy that so much.”
- Heather Caulkins

“(My sons) believe the Santa, Rodney, and Mrs. Claus live in our neighborhood and only go to the North Pole on Christmas Eve. Rodney plays the part so well, too!”
- Jenn Johnson

“They have been putting up their display for about a decade, and I enjoy it a lot. I guess there is a lot of traffic, but I just drive a bit more cautiously for the month or so that their lights are on. It is a labor or love for them.”
- Debra Kammerer

 

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