People often walk up to Carol Vicini in the supermarket and ask, "Aren't you the Christmas lady?"
"I'll say 'Do I know you?' and they say 'No, but I've seen you out in the yard.' "
That would be her front yard on busy Baptist Road in Whitehall, which from early November on is filled with a Nativity scene and more than a dozen Christmas characters, including a pair of concrete lion statues in holiday regalia and a life-sized Santa riding in an antique car with a dog at his side. Passing motorists honk and wave and sometimes pull over, park and take pictures. Ms. Vicini has won prizes three times in Whitehall's annual decoration contest.
In the early 1990s, when the display took its current form, Ms. Vicini received a Christmas card addressed simply: "To the keeper of the lions."
It was from a South Hills woman who drove by the house every day and said: "When I'm a little down, I look at your yard and I feel better."
"When you hear that, it keeps you going," Ms. Vicini said. "It's brought a lot of joy to my life."
She and that driver, Janet Hackfield of Castle Shannon, continue to exchange cards and small gifts every year. During a yard sale several years ago at Ms. Vicini's house, she finally met the Christmas lady face to face. If she had had time to look inside, she would have received another holiday surprise: Even though it was summertime, the living room and dining room were still decorated for Christmas. Ms. Vicini leaves her Christmas tree, village and Santa collection out year-round.
"I enjoy them so much, I never wanted to put them away," she explained. "Why just enjoy them for one month when you can enjoy them all year?"
Ms. Vicini, who turned 61 this week, has been celebrating Christmas every day for at least 15 years. She says her family and friends understand perfectly.
"They figure this woman was born on St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6) and she's named Carol. Apparently she has the Christmas spirit, so let's just let her go," she said, laughing.
They not only understand; they help out. Her son, Mike Palmer, is the artist and mechanical engineer responsible for creating the manger and all of the wooden outdoor figures. Scott Ross, a friend who is also a mechanical engineer, helps him put up and take down the outdoor decorations, including a 6-foot-tall star on the roof.
They are rewarded with a big homemade dinner in the dining room, surrounded by Santas of every shape and size and more than 70 Department 56 Snow Village pieces in two large lighted curios. Ms. Vicini has more than 900 Santa figures, many of which are permanently displayed in a large cabinet in the living room, near the 9-foot artificial tree.
"It doesn't make sense to put them away," she said.
However, animated figures and other large decorations on the floor go into storage, in deference to her two boxers, Pearl and Buddy. Pearl, also known as Steel Dog, is Santa's companion in the replica 1965 Shelby Cobra out front.
The Santa collection started with a small gold candle on her first birthday cake. She lit it for only the second time ever on her 60th birthday last year. She attributes her love for Christmas to her parents, William and Veronica Vicini. Growing up in Vandergrift, she learned the secrets of outdoor displays from her father and baking and indoor decorating from her mother.
"My centerpieces are all fresh, patterned after my mother's -- a candle on a silver tray with greens layered around."
She will do her baking next week, including 30 dozen snowball cookies, also known as Russian tea cakes.
Ms. Vicini loves to entertain during the holidays, usually wearing one of her Christmas sweaters and seasonal pins she received from her mother and aunt. Long after the traditional 12 days, her Christmas celebration continues.
"I always have a book of Christmas carols out, just in case someone feels like singing," she said.
After carols, the second-best music to her ears is the horns of passing cars.
"I guess people like what I do," she said. "It makes you feel good, spreading joy. That's what this season is about, spreading joy and happiness."
Kevin Kirkland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1978. First Published December 10, 2011 5:00 AM