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Royal Oak

After decades, family pulling plug on Christmas display

December 16, 2013

» click to enlarge «
John and Ethelyn Unger stand with two of their grandchildren, Blake and Jaden Unger, outside their home Dec. 12. For 35 years at their Washington Avenue home in Royal Oak, the couple has elaborately decorated their property for Christmas.

ROYAL OAK — The Ungers’ tradition of transforming their property into a Christmas wonderland began well before they moved into their current home at the corner of 12 Mile Road and Washington Avenue 35 years ago.

It truly started 48 years ago when they lived on Bauman Avenue. John, 73, and Ethelyn, 68, were two years into their marriage and bought a plastic Santa in his sleigh and a nativity scene and put them both on display.

Every subsequent year, their family would grow, and so would their Christmas display.

Decades later, they now have seven children, 28 grandchildren and six great grandchildren. Despite that original plastic Santa being long gone, the manger remains, and the family’s home has become not only a regional but an international draw.

Norma Unger, one of their children, said they’ve had annual visitors from Ireland and Switzerland.

“Before they even see their family, they come here,” she said.

This year, though, will be the last for the family’s grand display. Both their increasing electricity bills and the increased work to set it up and take it all down has become too much for the retired couple.

“We’re in the prime of our lives. It’s just that our bodies don’t agree with us,” Ethelyn said while laughing.

The family began to really accelerate their decorating during the oil crises of the 1970s.

“Nobody put lights out,” Ethelyn said.

She and John were both working at the time and took the responsibility upon themselves of spreading Christmas joy.

“It was so important to us to spread a little joy and sunshine,” she said.

Since then, their home has become a destination during the holiday season. Children would gather to watch John — who with his long white beard looks much like Santa — and his family stapling lights and setting up animatronic displays.

The children have grown up. Some now come to show the place to children of their own. Others come to just cherish the memories.

One recent visitor came the day of her grandmother’s funeral. She told Norma she used to visit it every year with her grandmother.

“She came here to get joy after burying her grandmother,” Norma said.

Because of what their home has come to mean for so many others and what the display has meant to the Unger family, the decision to no longer put up the display was not easy.

“We were throwing it around a little bit and seeing what we could come up with,” John said. “But the best thing was to just put it away.”

The last chance to see the Unger display will be New Year’s Eve. At the stroke of midnight, their large display will be unplugged forever.

Sure, they will still decorate, but “it’s not going to be the display that it has been,” Ethelyn said. “It’s going to be hard.”

The family is requesting those stopping by for one last visit to share photographs and memories of what the home has meant to them. Ethelyn and John want to put together a personal scrapbook.

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