Stop by and Say Hi to Visalia's Non-Grinchy Grinch
Grinchmas Tree Lane
By Jordan Venema
Photos courtesy of Visalia Grinch
Behind every superhero, there’s usually a kindly, unassuming figure – the Peter Parkers, the Clark Kents, the Van Crawfords. You might not pick out Van Crawford walking down the street, but if you’ve ever followed the luminescent glow to his Visalia home, you’d discover his alter ego, the rock-n’-rollin’ and gift-givin’ Grinch.
Crawford doesn’t mind that people know he’s the man behind Visalia’s Grinch, but he’s also quick to add that it has never been about him. “It’s about trying to help others change their lives in some way,” says Crawford.
This winter marks the 10th year since Crawford turned his suburban home into a regional attraction of lights, music, charity and good cheer. He was first inspired by a 2005 viral video of a house decorated with lights that flashed in sync with music.
“I wanted to figure out how to do it,” Crawford says, “and soon people started stopping by. So I began passing out candy canes in this Santa Claus suit, though it wasn’t the most attractive suit.” Soon thereafter, his decorative centerpiece, a 12-foot inflatable Grinch, was vandalized, and Crawford decided the best response was to become the Grinch.
“It was actually a big hit with the kids, though it scared the adults,” he laughs. Then one night he was inspired to strap on his guitar just to further entertain people, “and next thing you know, cars are lining up, people are hooting and hollering, holding cigarette lighters up. It just kind of evolved into what it is today.”
As the story of the Grinch grew, so did the light show. People offered to help pay for his electric bill, but Crawford instead took donations to give to Food Link of Tulare County, and later partnered with the Visalia Rescue Mission.
Surprisingly, had Crawford settled to accept donations only toward his electric bill, the Grinch would have raised relatively little. People often guess Crawford’s bills run between $1,500 and $1,800, but his highest bill to date was $287, including his home’s regular usage.
Crawford uses 17 32-channel controllers to orchestrate 272 different extension cords, which allow lights to flash, fade and flicker down to a tenth of a second, while in rhythm with the music he has programmed, amounting to more than 30 songs. Each song “takes me a minimum of 40 hours, and there are some songs that I’ve put up to 100 hours into it,” Crawford says.
While the Grinch has been raising money for the Rescue Mission, have the lights and music also raised the eyebrows and ire of his neighbors?
“I’ve pretty much been given a green light,” he says, humbly. “Once the cars started coming by, I thought they might get upset, but they’ve completely embraced this thing. Counting my house, there are eight houses connected in my neighborhood, and I control all eight houses’ lights. I’m using their electricity and lights, and we just hook them all together and have a nice little Grinchmas Tree Lane.”
Besides the time Crawford spends programming songs and setting up decorations, he also performs as the Grinch each evening between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And more importantly than his neighbors’ approval, he has the blessing of his wife.
“She is absolutely 100 percent behind this,” he says. “When we first started, we decided not to buy each other presents, and we still haven’t. We get more out of giving than getting. This isn’t about us.”
Crawford does not know exactly how much the Grinch has raised over the years, but it includes canned goods, gently used clothing and cash. He guesses that since he’s been with the Rescue Mission, “it’s probably close to $30,000, maybe a little more? The last two years I’ve been getting 90-plus barrels of food, and anywhere from $7,000 to $12,000 in cash and check donations.”
Crawford says helping others has been a humbling experience, but sometimes the biggest moments of charity have come from the smallest of the Grinch’s fans.
“I’m glad I have a mask on,” Crawford admits, “because sometimes I’m literally in tears underneath it, because of what they give. They’ll give me a bag of money and their parents will say that it was their entire piggy bank.”
Crawford describes one child who reached through the car window: “Here, Grinch, I want you to give this to the Rescue Mission.”
The child put a small white rock in Crawford’s hand and said, “It’s my diamond.’” The mother told Crawford that her child never went anywhere without the rock.
Those moments of generosity and charity have the potential to go much farther than any monetary donation, when you consider the shift in that child’s perspective. It’s the lesson of the widow’s mite, which really captures the meaning of Christmas, and the purpose behind the Grinch. Yes, it’s about giving, but it’s also about a willingness and readiness to give.
Crawford kept that little rock, among other tokens, on the desk in his office, though he recently made the decision to give that “diamond” to the Rescue Mission, because the Grinch told the little boy that he would.
Visalia Grinch Light Show and Donation Drop-off
2331 S. Jacques St., Visalia • 5:30–9:30pm
Begins the day after Thanksgiving and runs through Christmas
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