The man dressed as Santa enters his garage, turns on the lights and seems for all the world to have switched on a miracle.
A miniature village sprawls in all directions, the townspeople going about their business in driveways, at restaurants, on ski slopes.
Ferris wheels spin, headlights flash, bridge spans rise and fall, and with a low roar that rises to a din, 13 trains on 700 feet of track come to life, climbing hillsides, rounding bends, belching smoke.
The light falling on John Sturgeon's face, complete with his paste-on white beard, reveals a man wholly in his element. Sturgeon, 62, has just opened his well-known train garden for a 14th consecutive year. The monthlong spectacle has become an unofficial symbol of the holiday season in Anne Arundel County.
The 1,500 who stopped by his Pasadena home last year (no charge) set his record. A CNN reporter tracked him on opening night this season, and there are already plenty of glowing responses in his visitors' log.
"Glad to be back!" writes a member of the Gauthier family of Pasadena. "We look forward to this every year. Never disappointed," add the Baumanns. "Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful," writes Alberta Bargen.
Sturgeon calls his train garden the county's biggest, and it takes an entire club to run its chief rival, the one at Marley Station mall. But factoids are no measure of the holiday cheer this display creates.
It's a complex job, generating Yuletide cheer as big as the North Pole, as noisy as reindeer on the roof. Here are some tips from Santa Sturgeon:
Start early: You can't choose your parents, but John Sturgeon was lucky: His dad was a train buff and train garden lover with a keen eye for locomotive detail. In 1947, he gave his son six model-train cars the day he was born, and they're part of his display now. Also, as a kid, Sturgeon spent lots of time at a Kentucky train yard, watching the cars come and go. "Biggest things I'd ever seen," he says.
Collect creatively: Trains and display items are expensive, so Sturgeon has used every available resource. For years, when he was a Baltimore police sergeant, he had a second job as a security guard in a hobby shop. He earned as much as $5,000 a year - and asked to be paid in trains.
Authentic Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore County model police cars are unavailable to the public, so Sturgeon's come from his buddies in law enforcement. Another friend who works at CSX supplied the 15-foot "R.R. CROSSING" sign that flashes out front.
Mind the small stuff: Supply lots of detail anywhere a visitor might look. "Sturgeon Town" personifies this idea. At a drive-in theater, speakers sit beside the parked cars; cartoon hot dogs dance across the movie screen as in ads of yore. There are I.D. numbers on top of every police car, and most of the hundreds of train cars sport authentic names and logos: Boraxo, Chesapeake & Ohio, Chessie System, Center City Trolley.
At a classic McDonald's restaurant, tiny Christmas lights hang from the Golden Arches.
Have a sense of humor: Sturgeon has tiny cops arresting three robbers - in front of a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. Three dogs chase a hapless mailman in an eternal circle. A giant frank rotates atop the "Humble Hot Dogs" drive-in. Where one well-dressed gentleman can be seen doffing his cap to a lady, a Dalmatian lifts his leg periodically to do his business.
"One lady complained about that," Sturgeon says, "but I still think it's funny!"
Favor the kids: Thomas the Tank Engine of kid-TV fame (his eyes perpetually spinning) runs on a track on the outside edge of the display, right at kids'-eye height; so does a replica of the train from the movie "Polar Express." Children get exclusive views beneath a periphery of railroad bridges - right onto some of the town's sprightliest displays, including a frozen pond on which hockey players pass a puck.
Honor the past: "Train gardens are a dying art, but they're part of Baltimore history," says Sturgeon, who rhapsodizes to anyone who will listen about his growing-up days, when firehouses and Legion halls displayed their own gardens every year. He also puts history on display, including signs from the Lackawanna, Chessie, Erie and Northern Pacific railroads, and hats from CSX, Lionel and the MARC system.
Animate, animate: Authentic trains and a vast layout are great, but movement makes magic. Flip on the power and see a tiny man on a ladder reaching up with a paint roller to plaster a new ad ("Lionelville") onto a billboard. Watch lights flash inside the firehouse as the firemen circle a pole. A watchman emerges from a guard shed, holding up a lantern, each time a train comes round the bend, and as the balloons pass by during a circular parade, spectators' heads turn.
"A train garden is a town; a town has life," Sturgeon says. "People love movement."
Authenticate: If you have big-time backers, show it. "Your train garden has become legend in Pasadena," reads a framed letter on the wall signed by Nicholaus Kipke, a Maryland state delegate whose district includes Anne Arundel. "On behalf of the citizens - the truly young and the young at heart - of our community, I want to thank you for sharing the spirit of Christmas and creating memories for thousands of children that will last a lifetime."
Have diverse attractions: "Fat snowmen last longer!" reads a sign on the wall. "My wife says if I buy one more train, she'll leave me. Gosh, I'm gonna miss her," says another. The metal rungs leading up to Sturgeon's control tower were once part of a CSX train. Check out the blimp above the Ravens' stadium, the gondolas that run to the top of the ski slope, or the three-level glass case that displays some of Sturgeon's older locomotives, which are rarely in use.
Plan ahead: Sturgeon is no procrastinator. He starts assembling his elaborate yard displays as early as September. Dozens of inflatable snowmen, elves and Christmas trees; 30 wooden candy canes with lights; seven full-size illuminated reindeer; fully functional traffic signals; and a carol-blasting sound system are in place by Halloween.
"The trick-or-treaters all know Santy is coming soon," he says.
Make it personal: Sturgeon and his wife, June, are Harley-Davidson fanatics - a shiny Harley is on display in another part of the garage - and Sturgeon wasn't afraid to incorporate their hobby. In the back yard, an inflatable Santa rides a 6-foot "hog," and three miniature Harley dealerships dot the landscape of his town.
Work with your donors: A friend at the Maryland Transit Administration wanted to supply a replica light rail car, but asked that it not be placed next to a doughnut shop. Sturgeon happily complied. On the other hand, four local police cars sit in front of a tiny 7-Eleven store. "Cops do like their coffee!" he says.
Spare the eardrums: Electric trains can be loud, especially when more than 10 are running at the same time. Lay out cork beds beneath the tracks to muffle the noise, and your guests will still be able to converse with one another.
Never rest on your laurels: Sturgeon adds new elements every year so his many returning guests have something fresh to look for. New since last year: a "leg" lamp, a la the classic movie "A Christmas Story," in the front window; a Thomas the Tank Engine on the back lawn; three British policemen distributed in the town; and a model Bumble Bee Camaro like the one in the movie "Transformers" (its driver is getting a ticket).
"We're always expanding," he says.
Be a tweaker: A train gardener's work is never done, even during "showtime." Trains can come off the tracks. (He'll stop the whole system long enough to put one back together.) Smoke can stop coming out the smokestacks. (Sturgeon will shut off that particular line to add drops of "liquid smoke" - Arctic Mint flavor.) Turn your house lights on and off to create different visual effects.
"You have to watch every minute," says June Sturgeon, who quietly does just that, alerting her husband to any problems
Wear many hats: Sturgeon is town creator and mayor, trainman, greeter, storyteller and "Santy Claus." He changes into the red-and-white costume just before the gates open at 6 p.m., asks every child what he or she wants for Christmas, keeps a list of their wants on the wall, and hands out coloring books.
Remember the good stories, and tell them: Sturgeon has a million of them. Two favorites: One year, a neighbor brought his houseguest, a woman from Kansas, to the display. "You've got to see this man's beautiful garden," he told her. She didn't know what kind of "garden" was possible in the middle of December - but learned all about Baltimore train gardens. Then there was the 3-year-old boy from the neighborhood. His mother tried to take him home after 20 minutes, but he wouldn't budge. She came back three times, he says, but the boy stood in the same spot for three hours, watching the action. Other guests had to walk around him.
Be willing to operate at a loss: Sturgeon, who built the garage out back in 1992 and moved the train set out there three years later, heats the place with kerosene, which costs him about $700 a year. His electric bills are slightly higher in December. He keeps a donation box by the front door, a practice that defrays but never covers his costs. He says he'll never charge admission.
"You don't do this for the money," he says. "It just feels good to give this to people."
Love the season unconditionally: "This is my favorite time of year," says Sturgeon, the lights of his circling trains flashing off his spectacles.. "I can't imagine not being Santy, and I can't imagine missing this."
If you go
Where: The Sturgeon home, 836 Turf Valley Drive, Pasadena
When: 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and Dec. 14-23, 26 and 27. (Display is closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)
Admission: Free (donations welcome)
All are welcome.