There are some things San Diegans have come to count on each Thanksgiving day. Warm weather, a family dinner, Black Friday ads and the return of Christmas on Knob Hill.
For all but one of the past 34 years, Bill and Elaine Gilfillen of San Marcos have flipped the switch on their famous front-yard holiday display at 5 p.m. each Thanksgiving day. Bill Gilfillen — who turns 85 in January and is still recovering from knee replacement surgery in May — had some doubts about getting his decorations up this year.
But with the help of his children and a neighbor who first visited Christmas on Knob Hill as a little girl years ago, the legacy continues this year. Every night from 5 to 9 p.m. through Dec. 30 at 1639 Knob Hill Road in San Marcos, a spectacle featuring more than 100,000 lights and hundreds of yard and roof sculptures and decoration will be displayed.
A retired Navy flight engineer, Gilfillen spends 11 months of every year planning and prepping for Christmas on Knob Hill. Now that he has some help with decorations, Gilfillen said he doesn’t see himself ever retiring from the job because he’s honored to serve as “Mr. Christmas,” a nickname the community bestowed on him many years ago.
“What I like most is seeing people come out with smiles on their faces. The children dance around and are so happy, but the parents ar,e too. I’ve had people sit out here and cry because it reminds of them when they were young. It has been a joy for our family,” he said.
Thanks to social media and “holiday lights” maps, the Gilfillens’ home has become one of the county’s most-visited spots during the Christmas season. It draws around 20,000 spectators during the five-week illumination, including visitors from the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Australia and throughout the United States. The only year he went dark was the first winter of the COVID pandemic in 2020.
Christmas lights hold special meaning for Gilfillen, whose Grove City, Ohio, family was so poor in the early 1940s that he and his siblings spent several years in a church-run orphanage because their mother couldn’t afford to care for them. Walking through the snow to admire the holiday décor was the one present the Gilfillen siblings could give themselves.
After the Gilfillens move with their four children from Chula Vista to San Marcos in 1986, he bought several strings of lights and other items to decorate their front yard. But his then-10-year-old daughter Jennifer was so disappointed by the display that her parents vowed to wow her — and their neighbors — in the years to come. Gilfillen’s holiday display planning became his year-round hobby and today, he has three storage lockers and a backyard shed filled with holiday decorations and lights.
After taking down his decorations each January and taking a few weeks’ rest, Gilfillen starts shopping for new decorations and plotting out how he will change the layout of the next holiday display. Around June he starts unpacking and separating the decorations by theme. During the summer months, he tests and fixes lights and replaces worn-out decorations with new items. And by September the work begins on assembly. During the fall months, Gilfillen said he spends seven to 10 hours each day working outside on the project.
This year, he’s dedicating his display to his longtime friend and former employer Richard “Dick” Templin of Encinitas, who passed away Oct. 26.
While San Diego has dozens of elaborate holiday light displays featuring digital LED lights and projections synced to holiday music, Christmas on Knob Hill is a more traditional, old-school display. Santa’s sleigh, complete with two new reindeer, sits on the Gilfillens’ roof and the front yard is chockablock with illuminated and animated sculptures that include dogs, a koi pond, a moving merry-go-round, motorized Santas, Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage, a flying pig with flapping wings, a four-foot Statue of Liberty, an Iditarod-style sled team on the roof, a purple peacock, elves, tar Wars characters, a pirate ship, a nutcracker and an icicle tree. Other new items this year are some oversize candy canes, a new mouse and a new dog that looks like Chief, the Gilfillen family’s old Australian shepherd.
Gilfillen’s longtime favorite yard decorations are pair of Santa Claus sculptures. One is a lifelike Santa seated under the tree in the front yard. The other is a 5-foot-tall Santa near the mailbox that was part of his first yard display at the San Marcos house in 1986.
For most of the past 34 years, Gilfillen has dressed up like St. Nick to take Christmas wishes and hand out up to 2,000 candy canes for children from 6:30-7:30 p.m. Dec. 13 to 23. But this year he may take a raincheck on the Santa tradition, due to the possibility of a spike of respiratory virus, flu and COVID cases.
Gilfillen said he’ll be listening for Dr. Anthony Fauci’s public health advice on social gatherings before he decides to pull out his Santa suit. But he said he hates letting people down.
“This year especially I’ve had more people driving by stop and tell me how much they appreciate us doing this after the pandemic,” Gilfillen said. “They’ve been really kind about that.”