|IN NORTH PALM BEACH, CHRISTMAS NEVER SAYS DIE.|
It's only a few weeks into the new year, but eggnog and mistletoe are already hazy memories, and the last expired trees have been picked up from curbside.
But Christmas isn't over just yet in balmy North Palm Beach. Alongside US Highway 1 -- the road that runs almost unswervingly from sunny Florida right up to the North Pole (O.K., only to Maine, whatever) -- drivers in their AC-cranked cars will spot two seven-foot-tall Santa Clauses looming in the foreground of Lake Worth. One Santa, surrounded by a herd of topiary reindeer, stands proud and stiff like a giant, jolly sentinel while cars whiz by; the other leans over a jumbo wooden sleigh, an antique from 1832, with his big, fat arms open wide to welcome passersby. All year long this roadside winter wonderland stands in the sun-drenched, sweat-soaked, swampland of southern Florida, beckoning the curious and the confused to pull off at the next exit to visit Christopher James's Christmas Shop.
And, of course, there's a grinch lurking in North Palm Beach, too. The local city council, its collective heart black as coal, is trying its damnedest to squash James's perennial Christmas spirit. Officially, local blue laws decree that Yuletide decorations may only be displayed from October 15 through two weeks past Christmas.
Perpetual fines against James's off-season exhibition, plus supplemental fines for numerous safety-code violations, have amounted to over $47,000 (and with the holiday season having just recently receded, the meter's ticking once more).
Though in financial straits due to the city's crusade, and despite his wife and children's exasperated pleas, James refuses to dismantle his Christmas shrine because well, because he loves Christmas. "Why would I ever take it down?" he asks. "It's the most neatest thing I've ever done. I've made so many people happy."
For James, making people happy is reason enough to incur
Christopher James and Mrs. Claus share some Christmas magic.
"I don't care if they buy a thing," he says of potential customers lured in by the roadside attraction. "I just hope to earn enough to pay the bills.
Contrary to its name and its code-violating lawn displays, Christopher's Christmas Store is not just a Christmas store. "I'm a flower shop, really," he explains. The store is divided into three sections: the Christmas room, which is pretty much a "museum" for nine months of the year; a garden with a large goldfish pool, which is decorated and un-decorated according to season; and a space for antiques and non-holiday home & garden ornaments.
"I only even got into the Christmas thing," James explains, "after setting up and taking down the Christmas displays for a few years, and I realized that Christmastime was such a happy time for the store, I thought it should stay that way for all year."
Flashbulbs go off in front of the store, day and night, year-round, as parents photograph their smiling children frolicking around the Santas, sleigh, and reindeer. James receives hundreds of Christmas cards or letters enclosing pictures of children at play on his store's property. When the holiday does loom near, when everybody else in town puts up their own decorations and James's daily bombardment of fines finally takes hibernal respite through the New Year, carolers will gather in front of his manger (which is only up for the holiday), and the local news will usually show up to capture the tree-lighting ceremony.
"Everybody in the city thinks these laws are stupid," James explains. "Shouldn't the opinions of the townspeople matter? Why does a law have to stay when nobody agrees with it?"
Indeed, it's a law that only seemed to affect one person. Things got really Kafkaesque when North Palm Beach city councilman Edward Eissey went on the record with the Palm Beach Post to clarify, "My personal opinion is the shop is a great asset to our community, and I thoroughly appreciate that he's here. Still, we said we'll follow what the code is."
The grinchery began in 1998, when a special code-enforcing board was assembled by the city, presumably to seek revenue in the form of violation fines. Christopher's Christmas Shop, which had been certifiably inspected and properly paperworked ever year without any problems, was abruptly barraged with a daily reiteration of code violations: in addition to violations citing off-season, oversized Christmas displays (a double no-no), the store's aisles were suddenly no longer wide enough to be considered safe, the floors and walls were declared hazardously over-cluttered, the exit signs were decided to be improperly marked and insufficiently lit, and the overloaded electrical system was in violation of fire codes.
James argued before the code-enforcing board time and again, only to find himself manipulated by the council's dexterous navigation of loopholes, rule-bending, and, when appropriate, crossing out the old details and rewriting new ones. Laws regarding such intricacies as not-for-profit changeable-type signage on moving vehicles seemed to be rewritten specifically to exclude others or to include Christopher's Christmas Shop. The North Palm Beach city council's code-enforcing board could not be reached for comments.
One loyal customer had even alerted James when she'd just seen "those city people" planning that day's attack in the parking lot before entering the store. She claimed they said things along the lines of, "Where do you want to get him first, inside or outside or 'round back?" Followed, one can imagine, by maniacal laughter and the stroking of impossibly long waxed moustaches. "Can you imagine?" asks James, flummoxed by the idea that any one could or would wish him ill will. "People were standing in my own parking lot, plotting against me!"
"I thought this was a free country," he continues, "but it is not free in North Palm Beach. It's totally unbelievable, the type of power small local governments can have, and it's even more unbelievable that the power they do have goes totally unchecked. Anybody 'higher up' who's listened to my case has admitted that they agree with me, but
really cannot do anything for me. Nobody can force the city to change its laws. I'm not rich, I'm not famous, I'm just an ordinary fellow, a taxpayer in a trap, and nobody can do anything to stop this. It's absurd!"
Most puzzling was the condemnation of his electrical wiring, which he'd had redone entirely, under the city's inspection, when he bought the abandoned, dilapidated health club
that would eventually become the Christmas Shop.
"I've taken a dead building -- a building that had been burnt in an electrical fire, struck by lightning, and lied vacant for 12 years -- and turned it into something wonderful. And they want to shut me down for it! The whole thing is so absurd. I just do not understand why they're antagonizing me."
James believes that city council does not really have issues with Christmas -- "How could anybody hate Christmas?" he asks -- but against him. "Because I won't take my displays down. Because I argued their violations. Because I questioned the laws. Because I keep fighting back, they've become focused on running me out."
The city's clamped down on his personal life as well, fining the unapproved trellis on his fence, the overgrown shrubbery, the excessive Christmas decorations (which were only up within the allotted seasonal time, but were perhaps too noticeable), and ticketing the yellow pickup truck parked in his driveway, which bears the store's name and logo on its side, and is therefore a commercial vehicle subject to permanent short-term parking.
Because of his refusal to pay fines, the city's put a lien on his house; which has been devastating to James's family and business, and further hampers his ability to fight his case. His lawyer, Barry Silver, has been a stalwart supporter who believes in James's cause and has pressed him to continue fighting, even waiving his own fees while the Jameses struggled. (The irony that his lawyer is a practicing rabbi defending Christmas should not be overlooked; this is the stuff Christmas miracles are made of.)
Until he can take his case to a higher court, James is receiving surprising support and encouragement from far and wide. Radio stations all over the nation have gotten in touch with him and discussed his plight on airwaves nowhere near North Palm Beach, and 13,000 out-of-state supporters signed petitions in his defense.
"Most people, my wife and children included," James confesses, "support me, but they do not understand why I won't just take down the decorations. I'm embarrassed to ask for money. My wife is always saying I have to recognize 'the real world.' Most people don't understand, but that's O.K. I don't expect everybody to understand why."
James will continue fighting for Christmas, but in the meantime, his brief flirtation with North Palm Beach notoriety has helped him and the store do some things that hadn't before been possible. He's recorded an album of traditional Christmas songs, and is hosting his own crafts show called "Just Imagine with Christopher," which now airs twice weekly on local stations. He's also working on a book.
"I suppose I've been able to take some of this negative and turn it around," he admits. "I'm not one of those obsessive-compulsive people, but I'm not normal. I'm hyperactive. I'm go go go."