Joan Setti's love for Christmas was passed down from her mother.
"My mother loved Christmas," she said. "We were very poor, but she made Christmas so great for us kids. We only got maybe one toy and something to wear, but the Christmas spirit was unbelievable. It was always exciting, no matter what."
Joan and her husband, Rick, have been paying that holiday spirit forward for 22 years by turning their Midwood Lane home into a Winter Wonderland for other Norwalk residents and visitors from all over the world to enjoy from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day.
This year, the Settis have added eight new houses to Santa's Village, a gazebo, a little park for children to visit, and more than 100 figures, which they handmade and painted. Among the characters added to the display this year are the Smurfs, the Campbell's Soup Kids, and an array of Disney princesses, bringing the total number of characters displayed to 515. The entire display is illuminated by 120,000 tiny Christmas lights and 175 spotlights.
"I never ever envisioned it getting this big," Rick said. "It's a lot of work, but it gives me a lot of pleasure. I love to see the kids running around. Joanie and I have five kids between us and five grandkids, but they are spread out. So when kids come running through the yard, they're all my kids."
On Christmas Eve alone, the Settis see an average of 400 to 500 children. On that night, Rick and Joan become Santa and Mrs. Claus and sit outside from 6:30 to 10 p.m. to listen to Christmas wishes.
In the days leading up to Christmas, children can write letters to Santa with paper provided on site and drop it in the green mailbox near the front walkway.
"We enjoy all the kids, but you would be surprised the adults that knock on the door and say, `I just can't believe it and I just want to thank you,'" Joan said. "As a matter of fact, we had gone to a Christmas party the other night and when we came home on the front steps there were two loaves of bread somebody had baked us. They left a note saying thank you for all you do. That means so much that people appreciate it, because we do work really hard."
The Settis began the painstaking work of creating their Winter Wonderland back in 1989 when Rick criticized Joan's ability to decorate, he recalled, with a chuckle.
"Before we got married, I came up on a Sunday afternoon and found her at the kitchen table sorting through a bunch of lights, and she said she was going to do a little decorating outside. I said, `I'll be outside in a little while to help you.' So I went outside and saw what she was doing and said, `What are you doing?' And she said, `I'm decorating.' And I said, `That's not decorating.'
"So she turned around and said, `If you think you can do any better, then you are welcome to try.' That's how it started."
Now it's become a year-round project. Once the Settis take the existing display down, they take a couple weeks off to relax and unwind, then Rick is back in his shop -- a shed behind their house -- creating more characters for the next year's display, and then they paint them together.
"I already have plans for what I am going to do next year," Rick said. "They are surprises. I just love doing it. It's become a passion. It keeps me busy.
"If I didn't have this to do, I would probably go crazy. I got hurt on the job back in 1988 and since then I have had 10 surgeries on my back, so I know my limitations. I do what I can do."
They start setting up the Winter Wonderland in August and friends help out as the holidays approach.
"I've met with a bunch of guys every Saturday morning for the last 10 years. We socialize and discuss the problems of the world," Rick said, with a laugh. "Then one Saturday in November they come up to the house.
"One crew does the sled and reindeer on the roof. Another puts together fences. Another puts the manger together. Then their wives show up and decorate the artificial trees with Joanie and get the Santa's Village houses cleaned and set up. Without these guys and their wives, we would still be out there decorating."
While many people sign the Setti's guestbook before they leave, Joan pointed out one of the most memorable messages they've gotten over the years was written by a friend of someone who had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.
"She had said to him, `I am going to take you to a place that you will remember the rest of your life,' " Joan said. "He was in a wheelchair when he came through. The woman wrote that he was in such awe of everything. She said that's all he talked about it. She was able to bring him back one more year before he passed away."