COSTA MESA, Calif. - Jim Jordan created a heart-warming Christmas display of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" characters more than 40 years ago at his Southern California home, and it became a holiday tradition as tens of thousands of people showed up each year to see the sparkling extravaganza.
Families trekked to the Orange County suburb of Costa Mesa to sip hot apple cider and share the wonder as seen through their children's eyes amid twinkling Christmas lights, artificial snow and a Santa Claus that whisked through the air and down a chimney for spectators. It became so popular that busloads of visitors and school groups visited Jordan's childhood home each year.
When he lost the house to foreclosure, it looked like the death of a tradition — until the city stepped in to save Christmas.
A week ago, Costa Mesa officials offered to host the display on the lawn outside City Hall. They turned on the lights Tuesday evening in a song-filled ceremony attended by a large crowd of families toting toddlers and cameras. Santa was expected to arrive later Tuesday and then make nightly appearances Dec. 18 to Dec. 23.
The move saved a Christmas display that Jordan says draws 80,000 people each year to see Santa and the nearly 200-foot stretch of characters, colorful cottages and other creations.
"This has been absolutely a Frank Capra movie, where I feel like I'm in the middle of 'It's a Wonderful Life,'" Jordan told scores of people who huddled outside City Hall in the chilly night air, recalling the 1946 classic that is an enduring Christmas favorite.
In some Orange County homes, the tradition has been passed on through generations as those who grew up visiting the so-called "Snoopy House" now take their own children there.
Jordan, 59, said he started the project as a teenager in the yellow, single-story house where he was raised. Little by little, he expanded the display until it reached mammoth proportions, featuring an ice skating Charlie Brown and Schroeder playing piano to an adoring Lucy.
"My wife says I am a frustrated Walt Disney," he said, chuckling.
Several years ago, Jordan's business as a remodeling contractor slumped along with the economy. He sought a loan modification but said he was denied because he was still keeping up with his payments.
Following what he now knows is poor legal advice, Jordan said he stopped paying the mortgage, hoping to qualify for relief.
Instead he lost his family's home, which was foreclosed in November 2010. A tenant who rented from Jordan was allowed to stay until her lease ran out but the house will soon be sold, said Jason Menke, a spokesman for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage.
"We worked with Mr. Jordan for some time to try to find an alternative to foreclosure but we were unable to do so," Menke said.
Though he no longer lived in the house, Jordan was crushed to think about the families that counted on him at Christmas. When neighbors learned the display was in jeopardy, they called news reporters, posted signs and collected donations to try to help Jordan fight to recover the house, Jordan said.
Neighbor Tara Talbott heaved a sigh of relief when she learned the Christmas tradition would carry on, albeit at a new location.
She remembers how her now-grown son helped out as an elf, taking children's requests as they waited in line to see Santa and relaying them via a headset so St. Nick knew what they wanted when their turn came to meet him.
"It's so special to us," Talbott said. "It's so special to the whole neighborhood."
The city of 110,000 has received more than $1,000 in donations, which will help defray the cost of the spectacle's $1,800 electric bill, said Bill Lobdell, a city spokesman.
The city does not anticipate any copyright problems as it is a free, community event that will not generate any income, Lobdell said.
While Jordan said he has filed legal papers to try to get his house back, Costa Mesa hopes to bring the display back year after year to the site temporarily dubbed "Snoopy Hall."
Stephanie Gosselin, 32, said she has faithfully visited the "Snoopy House" every year since her parents took her there as a little girl. Now, carrying her wide-eyed 18-month-old son in her arms, the Costa Mesa resident is continuing the tradition.
"When I first saw it wasn't going to be there, I was like 'oh no,'" Gosselin said, looking at the Christmas lights twinkling atop cottages and a city hall building cast with red and green hues. "Now, I'm so happy."