LIVERMORE -- In 1982, newly ordained Livermore deacon Dave Rezendes set up a modest elf village at his home to celebrate Christmas. He had no way of knowing then that he'd begun a tradition that would last for three decades, outshining even some of the nation's largest displays.
"It had nothing to do with being ordained; I just put up a few lights," Rezendes said. "It grew from there."
Now with 345,000 lights, the elaborate spectacle at "Casa del Pomba" -- Rezendes' home at 352 Hillcrest Ave. -- draws about 40,000 visitors a year and has been featured on cable and international TV. In 2003, HGTV ranked it among the 10 biggest home displays in the U.S.
It dwarfs the National Christmas Tree and its 80,000 lights; even the 2013 Guinness Book of World Records falls short, listing an Australian as the residential record holder for lights with 331,038.
Though he has been encouraged to go after the world's top spot, Rezendes says it's not about being the biggest or the best.
"It's about getting people in the Christmas spirit," he said. "It makes more of an impact than we realize."
Rezendes, who serves at St. Michael's Catholic Church in Livermore, has collected lots of stories over the years. One unemployed and depressed man told him the display changed his life. A woman whose husband had died in a car crash cried tears of joy upon returning to a spot they had both loved. Another woman, beaten black and purple, dropped to her knees and hugged the deacon's leg, taking the lights as a sign to escape from her abusive husband.
Even the nonreligious, Rezendes said, report being drawn in by "a presence."
"[The beauty] is in the hearts and minds of the visitors," Rezendes said. "The children, when you see their eyes, you know it's worth it."
On opening night, Friday, crowds braved the rain for a procession led by the St. Michael's choir. Rezendes read a short passage from the Bible, blessing the lights. Then the gates opened. The choir led dozens of attendees in a chorus of carols as a steady stream of visitors toured the site's buildings, viewing the intricate scenes behind their windows. Each year's theme is unique; this year it's "Elfland," complete with an elf-staffed university, barbershop and dormitory.
"If you just drive by, you're going to miss it," Rezendes said. "There's so much you can take in."
Audrey Hodges and her husband, Ernie, have lived across the street from Rezendes since the 1960s, enjoying a front row seat to all 30 displays. She said they've never been bothered by noise or crowds, and she still views the lights from their porch almost every night.
"I think it's great," she said. "I've never heard any complaints. Everybody loves looking at them."
The display's popularity is evidenced by CaliforniaChristmasLights.com, a website that lets users rate home light displays. Livermore resident Alex Dourov runs it and says this year voters are ranking it fifth-best in California.
"Based on the comments and emails I get, everyone truly says Deacon Dave's is the best in the Bay Area, and it's probably also the biggest," Dourov said.
Volunteers began the Herculean task of installing the lights on Labor Day weekend, working until opening night. Rezendes said he's about to max out the 400 amp transformer PG&E installed to accommodate his power demands, unless he switches to LEDs.
Casa del Pomba -- "House of the Dove" in Portuguese -- boasts 44 Christmas trees, plus a model train, a nativity scene and the "Proposal Bridge."
By the deacon's count, the bridge has seen 56 wedding proposals -- not all successful. One Canadian man flew in to pop the question to his girlfriend. Much to his and his family's surprise, she said no. He said goodbye and left for home.
"We've had a lot of proposals, but there's no guarantees," Rezendes said.
The grounds are open nightly until New Year's Day. Rezendes doesn't charge admission and pays for his own electricity, but does accept donations for Santa's Secret Service, which provides gifts to the needy.
"It's my wish that people will find that sense of peace and sense of hope that the season brings," he said.
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184 or follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
"Casa del Pomba" is at 352 Hillcrest Ave., Livermore. The display is open 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, and 6 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. From Dec. 26 to Jan. 1, hours will be 6 to 9 p.m. Gates are open Christmas Eve and Christmas Day from 6 to 10 p.m. and on New Year's Eve from 6 to 8 p.m.