March 1, 2023
People & Places

Switching on the Christmas spirit

Festive season twinkles a little brighter in the Riverland each year thanks to one man’s ever-growing yuletide display that’s spreading Christmas cheer to young and old.

From modest beginnings, Paul’s lights have become “bigger than Ben-Hur”.

For anyone considering stringing up just a few humble Christmas lights this festive season, take warning: it’s a slippery slope. For Renmark’s Paul Tassios, what started 15 years ago as a single string of coloured globes, has escalated into an all-consuming obsession and a Christmas lights display encompassing tens of thousands of lights.

This Christmas, Paul’s Renmark home will twinkle brightly with more than 85,000 LED globes, drawing families from across the Riverland to visit each night of the festive season.

“It’s become bigger than Ben-Hur,” says Paul, a vigneron and former mechanic who teaches automotive courses at TAFE.       

 “I never imagined it would become this big; I was only putting the lights up for myself and the kids. I started with one strand of the old incandescent globes, and they were a pain because when one globe goes out, the whole string goes out and you’ve got to try and find which globe it is.”

Paul begins rolling out his lights in October.

Putting his display together is a process that starts in early October and for more than two months, Paul toils like a busy Christmas elf, making use of his old cherry picker and fruit tubs to string his lights among the tree canopies in his front yard. Thankfully, modern LED lights need fewer power outlets.

Having grown up on his family’s Renmark orchard, which he now operates as an organic vineyard, Paul has made innovative use of various farm tools. His nativity scene is hand-made out of old wooden apricot trays and fitted with 300 lights.

“My father used those trays to make dried apricots. As kids, we never had Christmas holidays because we were out there picking, working 14-hour days, even in 42 degrees. Now, I reckon the best use of those apricot trays is kindling for the fire or, in this case, for making a nativity scene. The old trays make a very authentic, rustic-looking stable,” he says.

In addition to all the work setting up the installation, Paul spends many hours baking his famous honey crackles that are given out to encourage donations to charity. Last year, he went through four kilograms of honey.

Paul uses a fruit picker to get the lights up into the tree canopies.

“I’m the king of honey crackles,” laughs Paul. “I’m pretty good at making them now. I teach at TAFE so when I’m on Christmas holidays, I spend a couple of hours baking every day. My two girls give me moral support.”

Once he switches on the display, Paul – assisted by his daughters Anja, 15, and Lexie, 11 – will be out in his driveway from 8.30pm every night of the school holidays, greeting droves of visitors, handing out hand-made honey crackles and accepting donations for charity.

“Between 8.30pm and 9.30pm, it’s bedlam. I’ve got a big sign up that says: ‘Please stop and walk through’, and there might be 100 cars parked out there at any stage. Even at 11pm you’ve got adults coming through who’ve been out for dinner and want to come and see the lights,” says Paul.

“The trampoline alone has 1200 lights on it. I once saw 25 kids jumping up and down on it and thought it might collapse at any minute. We’re getting more and more people coming out every year. Of course, I’ve got to keep buying more lights, statues and lasers. Eventually it might get to a point where I’ll run out of room, although the trees are always growing bigger.”

Paul Tassios is ready to greet droves of visitors to his Christmas lights display at Renmark.

Over the years, Paul has spent countless dollars on lights and honey crackle ingredients but this year, some local businesses have given support towards his mission to raise money for charity.

Last year, Paul raised thousands for the Childhood Cancer Association and as a father, Paul has been deeply touched by other families in the community who have been affected by the disease.

All the hard work is worthwhile when the donation bucket is checked at the end of the night to reveal $20 and $50 notes. “People are very generous. Even those who haven’t got a lot themselves often put in big donations, which is touching,” says Paul.

“Almost a local” having lived in Renmark for 57 years, Paul says that like in any country town, the community often faces challenges such as droughts and floods, but people are willing to reach out and support one another, especially at Christmas.

“It’s a lot of work, but you do it because you can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “If I can bring some joy to people and help them to forget their stress and worries even for just a short while, then it’s all worth it.”

Paul’s display at 101 Rialto Street, Renmark, will be open to the public from December 2.

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