While most people spend August enjoying the dog days of summer, 89-year-old Tappan resident Vincent “Vinnie” Barrasi—commonly referred to as “Grandpa Vinnie” by neighborhood locals—is already hard at work preparing for his favorite season: Christmas. For the past decade, the retired Bronx bus driver has spent August through October putting up an extravagant light display in his front yard as a tribute to his late wife Donata “Naty” Barrasi, who passed away in 2012.
Naty, who Vinnie met in 1957 when she passed by the Bronx candy shop where he worked, enjoyed the holiday as much, if not more, than her husband of 53 years.
“Everything he does is for her,” said Vinnie’s granddaughter and neighbor Dana Badalamente. “He misses her so much. But I think this is a really nice way to honor her.”
“I started decorating when I got married because it was Naty’s favorite time of the year,” Vinnie explained. “She loved all of the lights. I put them on all day on her birthday, October 5, and all day on November 11 (the day she passed) in her honor…I’m fortunate for my four daughters, eight grandchildren and four sons-in-law for helping throughout the years.”
Indeed, the entire Barrasi clan pitches in every year to help with the process of setting up Vinnie’s extensive collection of decorations, which include reindeer, life-size Santa figures, Christmas trees, toy soldiers and more. While some were accrued during his time in New City with Naty, others are newer additions from neighbors and flea markets. When not in use, most are stored in Vinnie’s shed, a structure Badalamente jokes is “almost as big as his house.”
To begin the decorating process, Vinnie and his family put rebar around the perimeter of the yard, hammering it in for reinforcement. Soldiers are then tied around the poles tightly to prevent theft, as one was stolen in years past. After a festive garland is hung, the fun part begins—figuring out where each decoration needs to be plugged in. While the job couldn’t be done without the help of his relatives, Badalamente emphasizes that her grandfather is at the helm through it all.
“Whatever he tells us to do when he points his candy cane, we do it,” Badalamente said. “As he’s gotten older, it’s more difficult for him to get up and down. So we definitely try to take over a lot…But at the end of the day he’s the director. Whatever he says, goes!”
In addition to honoring his wife, Vinnie’s favorite part of putting up his holiday display are the people who stop by to admire it. When he sees cars slow down to take a look at the lights, visitors are occasionally gifted an empty wine bottle with lights glowing inside—a creation he calls “Vinnie’s Bottles.”
According to Badalamente, the bottles and elaborate display all serve the same purpose for Vinnie: to honor her grandmother while spreading some holiday cheer.
“It really warms my heart,” Badalamente explained. “It’s just the sweetest thing to carry on her legacy after she’s passed. The holidays always remind me of his lights…Everything Christmas-related just reminds me of him and how much he loves her.”