UPDATE: As of December 19th, the lights are on. The family wrote, "We are SO HAPPY to announce that we have completed the Garabedian Christmas House! Please come by and enjoy our hard work with your loved ones! The lights go on around 5 p.m. every night."
A mannequin army, even one outfitted in heavily ornamented evening wear, does not scream Christmas—not in any language I can understand. Faced with a sea of painted smiles and stiff plastic limbs frozen in an endless waltz, a person might naturally feel confusion, definitely unease, maybe even fear. After all, that Santa's hand—its web of veins, its knotted knuckles—looks simply too lifelike to have come from anything but a real human's body. And yet for 45 years, a Bronx family has decorated up their house with mannequins to celebrate the Yuletide season, making strange tableaux that have established the Garabedian Christmas House as an unlikely holiday tradition.
Perhaps you have heard about the Garabedian Christmas House, encountered its inimitable glow blazing off the pages of the pages of local news outlets. Perhaps you have looked upon its shimmering bubble gum exterior, its thick mannequin coat, and wondered what goes on inside the mind that deemed this an appropriately festive tribute. I have been stewing on that exact same question, but unfortunately, my quest for answers has been a big dead end. Gary Garabedian, the Christmas House custodian, has proven hard to get ahold of this year. Other outlets have described him as "cherubic" and glittery, a jovial man apparently eager to discuss his handiwork. Unfortunately, I cannot independently confirm any of this, because Gary—or the person attached to the number I found listed for him—has not returned my calls.
Based on other reports, though, I know that the Garabedians conceptualized their garish display in direct response to a miracle God allegedly performed for the family on Christmas Eve in 1973. Gary has stoutly refused to disclose any details about the nature of this holy event, telling the NY Times only, "This is our way of showing thanks to the Lord for what he did for us." And so they've given God a home that "literally comes alive" between Thanksgiving and New Years: A baby Jesus resting on the roof, the traditional creche flanked by a merrily kicking Rockette chorus line; Liberace cranking out tunes on his grand piano, presumably for the pairs rotating mechanically on the red carpet circling the home; Cinderella's cage-like carriage charging through a field of animatronic movie stars.
Here's what we know: The late family matriarch, Nelly Garabedian, worked as a seamstress, and originally architected this homage as a smaller-scale doll display in 1974. It's grown every year since then, the family having learned how to make their own mannequins from the neighborhood priest (now deceased). They spend summers molding the fiberglass into custom human forms, typically based on celebs, some of whom get motors so they can move around. I cannot say how the family decides which famous faces to add and which to retire each year, but I have read that they store their creations at Gary's brother's house upstate. Let's marinate on that point for a second: A room stuffed full of nearly 200 lifeless-but-eerily-lifelike figures, some sheathed in plastic bags as if recently suffocated.
Although Nelly died in 2007, Gary has taken up her torch and continued to carry it forward. This year, though, its light has dimmed. On December 3rd, we noticed a disclaimer posted to the house's Facebook page. "We have had a delay in finishing the Christmas house; however, we are hoping to have the house ready to go soon!" reads a message written 11 days after Thanksgiving, the day the full panorama traditionally makes its seasonal debut. "We will put up a post on Facebook when the house is officially ready. Thank you for your continued love and support." At time of writing—with just under two weeks to go until Christmas—no updates had been posted.
Undaunted, we pressed forward with our search for answers. Gothamist photographer Tod Seelie made his way to 1605 Pelham Parkway on December 5th, and upon arrival, confirmed the sad truth: The house had only been halfway finished, and further, its owners did not seem even a little inclined to discuss the delay. "We were able to get the attention of the owners through a window to ask if they could turn the lights on briefly, and were answered with an abrupt lowering of (admittedly festive) window shades," Seelie reported upon filing his photos, seen above.
And so we tried again: Along with WNYC producer Andres O'Hara, I trekked up to the Christmas House the following day, hoping that even if the facade looked like a shadow of its usual inter-holiday self, we might still be able to pry some information from the owners. At least an explanation as to why they'd slowed down this year. (Although, I will say, the aesthetic scheme in all its typical glory seems like a Herculean undertaking to install, and I feel uncharitable demanding speed.) But when we arrived, we found the display mostly dark.
True, the nativity scene on the rooftop loomed in its usual place, its scale wildly variable and disorienting. The piano was out, Santa and his sleigh were out, but all the mannequins—save for religious figures, two sets of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and a horde of child-sized cherubs—stood corralled into a dark room, silhouetted against the sole light burning in the kitchen and looking like guests at a frightening surprise party. The red carpet, strewn with leaves and stray power cords, looked sad; the overturned ladder lying across the patio suggested abandonment; a padlock hanging around the gate faced outward, as if to whisper "kidnapping."
Inside the house, we could see a sewing station strewn with fabric, a mannequin leaning against the wall with its limbs at broken angles, but not a single human moving. The doorbell rang for no one.
And so we are left with a haunting Christmas mystery. Is this the end of the Garabedian Christmas House? Is Christmas cancelled? Who will take custody of the dolls when their duty is done? Or perhaps we should be asking ourselves who the dolls will take into their custody?