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Bill Gilfillen has limited his usually-larger-than-life Christmas on Knob Hill display to just a few decorations this year while he recovers from surgery. Photo by Laura Place
Bill Gilfillen has limited his usually-larger-than-life Christmas on Knob Hill display to just a few decorations this year while he recovers from surgery. Photo by Laura Place
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North County’s ‘Mr. Christmas’ takes a break, but promises he’ll be back

SAN MARCOS — Nearly every holiday season for the past 35 years, Bill Gilfillen’s home on Knob Hill Road has drawn thousands of San Diego County residents eager to admire his larger-than-life Christmas display. 

But this year, a whiteboard sign awaits visitors near the door at 1639 Knob Hill Road, stating that Christmas on Knob Hill is on a one-year hiatus due to Gilfillen’s health. 

It was a hard decision for the 85-year-old retired Navy flight engineer, who has earned the name “Mr. Christmas” from local children over the years, but one he said he needed to make as he recovers from knee surgery. The only other time he hasn’t decorated was during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gilfillen assured the community that he’s planning to get right back to it next year.

“I really miss doing it this year because I know so many people come to see the house,” Gilfillen said. “The only reason I didn’t do anything this year was because of my health. I’ve already decided that as long as I can keep doing it, I’ll do it, and if there comes a time when I can’t do it, I’ll teach someone else to do it.” 

Bill Gilfillen, 85, has been making families smile with his iconic Christmas on Knob Hill lights display in San Marcos for 35 years. Photo by Laura Place
Bill Gilfillen, 85, has been making families smile with his iconic Christmas on Knob Hill lights display in San Marcos for 35 years. Photo by Laura Place

The cancellation has come as a disappointment for many families who come to see the light display every year, and several people have offered to set up the display for Gilfillen. While he appreciates it, he always declines.

Even in years past, Gilfellen said he has only allowed his family to help bring the decorations in from the shed and put them away. The rest is all him. 

“I’ve had so much fun with it, and up until now, I’ve always done things myself… I’m so particular with the way I do it,” he said.

Gilfillen usually begins setting up the display in September, spending two months hanging over 100,000 lights and configuring hundreds of figurines, including snowmen, nutcrackers, penguins and more.

He flips the switch on the completely solar-powered display on Thanksgiving night and has it on for people to enjoy every evening through Dec. 30. In the past, he has also dressed up as Santa for the event. 

For Gilfillen, getting to make so many people happy with his display is a true gift. 

Knob Hill Christmas lights
A light display at Christmas on Knob Hill in San Marcos in 2021. Photo by Tigist Layne

“I think I get more enjoyment out of it than the people that are watching do. I really do. To see the faces on people when they come up, and their faces just light up — especially the children, jumping up and down — it’s all worth it. It’s worth all of the labor that goes into it,” he said. 

Elaine Gilfillen, Bill’s wife, calls him a “superstar.”

“Bill is the ambassador of Christmas here,” Elaine said. “The things he puts up are just incredible to look at.” 

Just down the road, other neighbors have been setting up their impressive holiday decor, but they say Gilfillen’s display is missed.

“At Christmas, we hear the kids laughing; they come and take photos, and it is just wonderful,” said resident Debbie Sand. “A lot of people were looking for him this year, that’s for sure.”

While he’s on strict orders from his doctor not to push himself, Gilfillen couldn’t resist putting up a small Santa Claus and a couple of snowmen in the front yard to greet those who come by.

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