Decorations lead to donations

  • Article by: SHANNON PRATHER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2012 - 6:29 PM

Michael and Shirley Esch light up their yard and dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus -- all for a good cause.

Shirley and Michael Esch in 2008

Michael and Shirley Esch's Christmas display dazzles with more than 15,000 lights, frolicking reindeer, twinkling Christmas trees and a 20-foot-tall inflatable Santa Claus.

But it's the celebrity guest list that makes the girls and boys squeal.

For the past 13 years, Santa and Mrs. Claus and a cadre of elves have made an appearance at the Esch home, visiting with children and collecting food and donations for the nonprofit 360 Communities.

The couple dress up as the Clauses one Sunday in December and host a neighborhood open house that, in years past, has had families lining up and down the block. Neighbors and friends play the elves.

They will host their open house from 5 to 8 o'clock Sunday night at their home at 1120 Aspen Drive in Burnsville.

With more than a handful of Christmas-light titles under their belts, they also are competing for Burnsville's top lighting prize. Winning is nice, but true success is measured a pound and a penny at a time.

Last year, they collected 1,200 pounds of food and nearly $1,000 in donations. The couple -- who own and run Custom Drapery and Blinds by Michael Esch -- host three charity events each year. They estimate they've collected more than 50,000 pounds of food and $10,000 in donations over the past 13 years. The Christmas open house is their largest.

"It's all about children and family. We love Christmas and we love the meaning of Christmas," Michael Esch said.

The couple also invite guests into their home for cocoa, hot buttered rum and snacks. Visitors can tour the couple's miniature Christmas village of 600 lit miniature buildings laid out in the Esch basement.

Michael Esch has perfected his jolly Santa belly-laugh. Shirley Esch said Mrs. Claus tends to be a quieter figure who appeals to shyer children.

The pair like to quip a bit about life at the North Pole.

The couple also plays Santa and Mrs. Claus at Burnsville's annual tree-lighting event. And apparently the Clauses are also T-wolves fans: Shirley and Michael Esch are season ticketholders, so they usually like to show up for a game in costume.

Over the years, the role of the Clauses gets easier.

"We've gotten older and he doesn't need as much padding anymore," Shirley Esch said.

They're careful not to make promises when hearing children's wish lists. When iPads, computer games and other high-price items come up, Santa usually answers, "That's kind of hard for my elves to make."

"The elves are good at dolls and Legos," Shirley Esch adds. Parents' heads usually nod enthusiastically.

Shannon Prather is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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