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Citrus couple plans to turn out lights on labor of love Christmas display

INVERNESS

For the past 18 years, it's been one of the biggest holiday draws in Citrus County.

People who happen upon Frank and Linda Sojka's home can scarcely believe their eyes when they see the explosion of color that comes from more than 300,000 Christmas lights and a handcrafted outdoor display that includes an 18-foot-high reindeer, a Ferris wheel, a nativity scene and, of course, Santa Claus in his sleigh.

However, the enormous annual Christmas wonderland is nearing its final days. Frank Sojka says that on Jan. 5 he will reluctantly pull the plug on display for good, selling everything, because he's no longer physically able to put it together every year.

"My knees are shot," said Sojka, 68, a disabled veteran who suffered severe injuries from a land mine explosion while he was serving in Vietnam. "I've loved it, but I simply can't do it anymore."

While the display is a labor of love, it's hard labor for Sojka and his wife, Linda. They start hauling out and assembling decorations a couple of weeks before Halloween in order to be ready for the public on Dec. 1.

And the work goes far beyond decorations. During the weeks leading up to Christmas, the couple spend their evenings playing host to hundreds of visitors who stop by each night. They serve free hot chocolate and cookies and give out stuffed animals to kids, with Frank playing the role of Santa.

"It's just something we started doing because we love to see people smile," Linda Sojka said. "That's the part we're going to miss the most."

The origin of the Sojkas' decoration frenzy goes back 30 years, shortly after they bought their first house in St. Petersburg.

Linda Sojka said that hanging Christmas lights quickly became an obsession for her husband, who every year wanted to make the display more elaborate. When they moved to a house on a larger lot near Inverness in 1991, the couple installed a 200-amp service box to accommodate their growing holiday tradition.

"Frank was so passionate about it," Linda Sojka said. "Everything he built was done with care and with kids in mind."

But over time, the effort became more of a burden for the couple — and expensive as well. Electric costs to run the display topped $2,500 last year. A box for financial donations didn't offset the costs.

"At some point you have to look at reality," Frank Sojka said. "It's just the way it is."

The couple said that from now on, their Christmas decorating will be limited to what they can do in a day.

"We'll miss it, and we'll miss seeing all the people that came to see the display," Linda Sojka said. "But we have lots of great memories to share. And that's something we'll have forever."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1435.

.Fast facts

See the lights

The Sojka Wonderland Christmas display is open from 6:30 to 10 p.m. nightly through Jan. 5. at 2791 E Mary Lue St., north of Inverness, just off Croft Avenue and about a mile south of County Road 486. Santa will make nightly appearances through Tuesday.

Citrus couple plans to turn out lights on labor of love Christmas display 12/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 20, 2013 9:26pm]
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