If the Murillo family doesn't capture the top spot on Santa's nice list this year, there's no hope for the rest of us. They have filled their front yard in Grapevine with more than 1,000 lighted Santa decorations as a beacon of awareness for a local nonprofit.
They're calling it, simply, Grapevine Santa House.
The half-acre property is a "Where's Waldo?" maze of Santa statues, which visitors can walk among, snap photos with, and then, they hope, make a donation to Grace Grapevine's Christmas Cottage program. The charity's seasonal initiative provides new, unwrapped gifts to Tarrant County families facing financial hardship.
"I've always been a holiday guy, way over the top," says Louie Murillo, the dad and Santa House head honcho. Anyone who's seen the 20-foot Christmas trees perched atop the the two Chick-fil-A restaurants he owns near Dallas Love Field can attest.
"About a year ago, I bought some Santas on clearance and thought maybe we'd do something with them for a family Christmas card," he says.
Along came COVID-19, and his holiday passion intersected with a desire to help those who were struggling. During his quarantine free-time, he bought a few more Santas online. Then a few more. Then his idea for a Santa House really began to take shape.
"Once we dipped our toe in, we decided to go all out," he says of his family, including kids ages 12 and 14.
His search for Santas took him around Texas and beyond. Murillo even flew to Chicago and drove back a truck loaded with nine reindeer and a sleigh.
By July, one of the home's three attics was stuffed with Santas. Then a game room overflowed with them. By fall, a storage unit was filling up.
To be clear, these aren't just any Santa statues. They're "blow molds," a specific kind of hollow, plastic figure popular in the '50s, '60s, and '70s. They're rarely made now, and considered collectibles, costing anywhere from $30 to $140 apiece.
"How much I've spent is not a number we're gonna discuss nor share with my wife," Murillo says with a laugh. "It definitely got out of hand."
Then there was the matter of lighting it all up. An electrician helped wire the yard with an additional, 14-outlet breaker, and they're hoping a switch to LED lighting helps ease the electricity bill a little.
Some decorations are set up in vignettes, and Murillo's favorite piece isn't actually a Santa. It's a vintage church, an expensive piece he found in Chicago. The display also includes carolers and a nativity, and a sign urges people to tune to a radio station to hear the Christmas story from the Bible.
Murillo reached out to the Grace organization about a partnership at the perfect time. Their need would be higher than ever at a time at the holidays, when fewer gatherings meant fewer opportunities for donations to be collected. Typically, Christmas Cottage serves more than 2,500 individuals and families each holiday season. Families are given a hypothetical “budget” that allows the parents to “purchase” donated toys, home goods, and appliances in a secure, store-like setting.
The Murillos' goal is to raise $15,000 with Santa House, which will help 120 kids. By December 1, just a few days after turning the lights on, they were already at $9,000.
Rather than collecting contributions on site, they're encouraging guests to donate online via a GoFundMe page set up in conjunction with the Santa House.
Among the first visitors to the Santa House was a single mom whose child had been helped by Grace, Murillo says. Mom and daughter enjoyed the lights and then made a donation — they paid the kindness forward.
"It's cool to see real people being helped that are in need," Murillo says. "It's fun just to see kids' excitement. We've all been stuck indoors, not traveling, and this is something to do as a family."
The Santa House lights will go on every night from 5-10 pm through December 27. The home is on a cul-de-sac in the Western Oaks neighborhood, and visitors can park along the street.