As Long Islanders head to their downtowns this holiday season, to shop or to participate in one of the many festive activities planned in coming weeks, they will be greeted by colorful, brightly lit decorations — including menorahs, Christmas trees and candy canes.
Where did they come from, and who put them there? In villages and hamlets across the Island, there are teams of business owners, volunteers and local officials who come together each year to ensure their downtowns are merry and bright for the holidays. People like Maria Lella, Huntington Station’s unofficial “Queen of Christmas.” Or Manny Coelho, a Farmingdale brewery owner who tries to outdo himself every year.
And then there’s Jason Kontakis, president of the Lindenhurst Business Improvement District and a lifelong resident.
“I’ve been here my entire life,” he said. “I love that feeling of the holidays here, and I want to make sure that’s there for the next generation of kids growing up.”
Newsday spoke to some of the Long Islanders who deck the downtowns about how they prepare and why they devote so much time and energy to making it happen.
For Maria Lella, known in Huntington Station as the “Queen of Christmas,” bringing joy to the community has been her goal since she became head of its Holiday Decorating Committee more than a decade ago.
Maria Lella, left, helps unload a bus where decorations are stored in Huntington Station. She is joined by Andrea Golinsky, Nixon Chavez, top, Frank Cosentino and Kelly Smith, right. Credit: Rick Kopstein
“Christmas is the best, it’s magical,” said Lella. “I had this vision of what I wanted it to look like and for people to drive through the Station and go, ‘Wow this is great!’ We have it down to a science now.”
Making the most of a limited budget, Lella said she compiles ideas for decorations with her committee throughout the year. She orders everything in January and they are stored in a school bus at Huntington Coach LLC, until a few days before Thanksgiving. With help from her husband, Rick Lella, who owns R&R Brothers Electrical, and others, the decorations are installed on New York Avenue.
“And the local community cheers us on,” said Rick Lella.
Christmas sprays will hang on lampposts, with holly lights and snowflakes will beautify PSEG poles. Giant illuminated candy canes are new this year, and there will be a tree lighting.
The decorations were a much-needed glow-up for the Huntington Station section of the long avenue, said Kelly Smith, who grew up in the hamlet and has been involved with the business improvement district since 2019.
Smith, 35, said she remembers the highly trafficked street being mostly undecorated when she was young.
“We used to have one or two lights up, and then there’d be more as you get closer to the village. . . . Now you can drive the entire New York Avenue [in Huntington Station] and it’s so vibrant and bright and cheery with holiday spirit,” said Smith. “We include things for different holidays and want everybody to feel celebrated. Seeing the looks on the children’s faces as they walk down the street, it’s been really rewarding.”
To encourage local business to get in the spirit, Maria Lella and BID President Frank Cosentino held a “Best Holiday Decorating Contest” last year.
Of the dozen participating businesses, Jonny D’s Pizza on New York Avenue lit up the competition and won Best Building for its multicolored lights, huge wreaths and red bows, along with a 12-foot Christmas tree, reindeer and pizza chef statue wearing a Santa hat and coat on the roof.
“It’s something the community loves and gets people to notice you too,” owner Jonny Dawson said. “When I was a kid, we used to drive around as a family and look at houses in the area with crazy Christmas displays. It’s pretty cool that my pizzeria is one of those now.”
The small village of Malverne has a big advantage this time of year.
In the close-knit community, “where everybody knows one another,” decorating the village for the holidays has become a townwide affair, said Jen Prizzi, president of the Malverne Civic Association.
Megan O’Rouke-Schutta, left, Malverne Village Mayor Tim Sullivan and Jennifer Prizzi with some of the village’s holiday decorations, including a life-sized Santa statue. Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara
Residents gather for free refreshments, live holiday music and a barbecue, and then throw on Santa hats and get to dressing up the entire village. There will also be gingerbread cookie decorating and ornament workshops, breakfast and bowling with Santa, carolers, a high school marching band performance, horse and buggy rides and a free movie for the public.
Leading the charge on organizing and ordering materials for the events is the Celebrations Committee, chaired by Megan O’Rourke-Schutta. The group first met in the beginning of October to, among other things, parse its inventory of bows, wreaths and lights, which are stored in the village train station’s basement, and plan the decorating, O’Rourke-Schutta said.
“When decorating, we have 26 storage bins labeled, like, ‘50 bows go on the corner by Uva Rossa,’ with 26 areas that need to be decorated,” said O’Rourke-Schutta, who joined the committee this year after nearly a decade of taking her son to the village tree lighting. “I love being involved.”
Said Prizzi, “It’s a beautiful Hallmark scene in the village this time of year,” noting that a large menorah, Christmas tree and Nativity display will be installed at the fountain along Hempstead Avenue. “Every year it works out perfectly because of the volunteers and people who help.”
She added that local businesses go above and beyond with decorations to attract people to the village.
“It’s something that everybody looks forward to,” said Mayor Tim Sullivan. “The holiday lighting is the time of year you’re celebrating multiple religious holidays and that’s embraced very enthusiastically throughout the village. It’s a warm feeling of people coming together and caring for each other. It’s a wonderful life here in Malverne!”
Ahead of the 2019 holiday season, officials with the village’s Business Improvement District and the Mayor’s Beautification Society made the decision to replace the town’s old and weathered decorations to boost business in December.
The pivotal figure in the plan was John Frenna, who was a BID board member at the time. A lifelong resident and owner of The Little Flower Shop, Frenna had been a frequenter of Atlanta Mart in Georgia, which features three floors of Christmas decorations and supplies. Through his connections, he and Jason Kontakis, the current BID president, flew to Atlanta to order figurines, wreaths, bells, a huge “Season’s Greetings” sign, light-up ornaments and presents, Kontakis said.
Lindenhurst BID President Jason Kontakis, left, and John Frenna with just a few of the village’s decorations at the gazebo on Wellwood Avenue. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin
Frenna’s biggest creative vision, though, was transforming the Village Square Park gazebo on North Wellwood Avenue into a holiday haven.
“We put in a big life-sized Santa and a sleigh, reindeer, elves, angels, and have music going on,” Frenna said. “It did my heart good because when COVID hit and everything was shut down, and nobody could see Santa Claus, families were there taking pictures with their children in the sleigh and next to Santa.”
The gazebo also features a 9-foot-tall menorah that lights up automatically and light-up signs that read “Happy Hanukkah.”
“I’m very conscious about taking care of the village because at one point business was terrible, the village was really quiet, and we needed to do something to bring people into the downtown,” Frenna said. “This put us back on the map. I walk through town and I’m very proud of it.”
He said for the 100th anniversary of Lindenhurst this year, streetscapes will be hung across Wellwood Avenue and serve as entrances into the village. “They will be beautiful and make a statement,” he said.
Manny Coelho, co-owner of Lithology Brewing Company on Main Street, is on a mission to make his establishment an ultimate Christmas destination.
“I always want it to be a little more cheerful, have more glitter, more icing on the cake,” said Coelho. “Like Buddy the Elf lives here.”
A lover of the holidays and decorations, Coelho said he and his wife often visit Christmas markets, bringing back extravagant winter wonderland ideas.
Manny Coelho, center, with Cheryl Parisi and Joe Garcia. Credit: Rick Kopstein
But this year, he said, he’s really going “hardcore,” after the village BID secured a grant that will go toward beautification and holiday lighting, such as new LED snowflakes and overhead swag lights. Its president, Joe Garcia, encouraged him and other local business owners to ramp up their storefront decorations and turn Main Street into a window-shopping attraction.
“We live in New York and New York does Christmas and the holidays — it’s a melting pot of cultures and we know how to do it,” Garcia said. “It helps our businesses stay open and thriving and also allows residents to stroll down Main Street and remember what Christmas or Hanukkah and other holidays were like when they were young. And when you think of a traditional holiday season, it’s all about small businesses.”
Coelho said he plans to deck the brewery with “everything you can think of”: garland, paper snowflakes, piles of wrapped presents set up like it’s Christmas morning, and ceilings and walls covered in Santa Claus imagery and decorations. The windows, too, will be decked out, he said.
Nearby, The Chocolate Duck has been attracting passersby with its holiday window displays for more than 30 years.
Owner Christina Bisbee said when she started working there in the 1980s, the village was “a ghost town,” with minimal decorations. But that never stopped the sweet treat shop from being as festive as possible, she said.
Over the decades, the storefront has been filled with snowscapes, Santa, nutcrackers, elves made of fabric, moving angels, stockings, lights, tall ornamented foil trees, a duck in a Santa hat, as well as paintings on the glass, she said.
“Businesses count on people coming into the town, and when you make it beautiful and a destination, it takes on a whole other entity,” said Bisbee, who will host the 10th annual Gingerbread and Chocolate House competition on Dec. 9. “And now it’s like Main Street USA, it’s just been epic here. And when you have that, people are nicer. It’s important to have your town come together.”
After two decades of covering Patchogue’s downtown with candle wreaths, members of the Patchogue Village BID wanted to “light it up more” this year, according to the group’s executive director, Dennis Smith.
Dennis Smith poses with one of Patchogue’s snowflake decorations on Main Street. Credit: Barry Sloan
“We needed a little facelift,” said Lori Belmonte, the BID president and owner of the children’s boutique The Colony Shop. “It’s going to really look outstanding when it’s all done.”
They’ve partnered with the village to install new and improved decorations, including white snowflakes on poles throughout the downtown; blue and white snowflakes by Temple Beth El on Oak Street for Hanukkah; white and gold shooting stars in front of notable buildings like the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts; larger shooting stars on the Four Corners intersection of Main Street and Ocean Avenue; and a new skyline banner exclaiming “Happy Holidays.”
In the Capital One plaza on Main Street, Smith said the community can expect the lighting of the village’s 9-foot-tall menorah, alongside a 22-foot tree and a Nativity scene.
Belmonte, a lifelong resident whose grandmother opened The Colony Shop in 1946, said, “I hope people come and look at the decorations, walk Main Street, and see the small businesses we have here.”
Smith, who has lived in Patchogue since the 1950s, agreed. “This means the world to me. I want all children and adults to come into the village and get that Christmas spirit here that I did as a kid, which everybody wants and, I think at this point in time, desperately needs.”