At this time of year, it's easy to mistake Bob Zeagler for a walking, talking Christmas tree.
From the tips of his shiny boots – one bright green, the other crimson – to the top of his towering, ornamented hat, Zeagler, wearing an old-fashioned Santa suit decked with bells, balls, bows, garland and stuffed animals that move and sing, is a shiny, sparkling, jingling, melodic homage to Christmas.
The Christmas costume is just one of the over-the-top seasonal themes that the Batavia resident, known as "The Holiday Man," uses to decorate himself and his shiny black Jeep SUV.
"I am active year-round with the Jeep and my costumes," says the affable, bearded Zeagler, who is 66 but adds, "Mentally, I'm about 4."
"I just really like to see people's faces light up and make them feel good," he says. "If they can forget about their problems just for a few minutes while they talk about my Jeep or my costume, it makes me feel like I've helped somebody."
If you haven't seen Zeagler himself ?in the full holiday regalia he wears ?while pumping gas, shopping for ?groceries or doing errands, you may have noticed his Jeep.
At this time of year, the Jeep's roof is topped with a plywood board covered with plastic figures, including Santas, gingerbread men, nutcrackers, snowmen, candy canes and stacks of gifts. Some light up. Every door handle is decorated, and a Santa flanked by nutcrackers looks back at traffic from a small luggage carrier attached to the back bumper. Holiday figures line the dashboard, and carols play from speakers.
Zeagler has eight other decorated plywood panels for his Jeep and many other costumes and hats to wear for the holidays he observes year-round.
Soon after Jan. 1, he'll switch to Valentine's Day decor, featuring hearts, Cupids and roses. Then it's on to St. Patrick's Day, when he dresses like a leprechaun and dyes his beard green. For Easter, he wears a suit festooned with hundreds of plastic eggs and spring flowers; for Buffalo's Dyngus Day parade, he wears the egg suit and dyes his beard half red and half white, the colors of the Polish flag. For the summer, he embodies a patriotic theme from Memorial Day through Independence Day and into Labor Day. He dresses as Uncle Sam and marches in several parades, while his wife, Bridget, drives the Jeep behind him.
Then he's ready for Halloween, which is probably his favorite holiday. The speakers on his Jeep play spooky sounds and eerie music, while he dresses as a criminal clown – half prison stripes, half clown costume festooned with spiders, snakes and zombie babies – and tows a trailer with a sign reading "Haunted House, Do Not Enter."
"I really go crazy for Halloween," he says, making several appearances each year at the Great Pumpkin Farm in Clarence. After a turkey and Pilgrim-themed Thanksgiving interlude, it's on to Christmas, and the cycle starts again.
Zeagler's transformation into "The Holiday Man" started about 15 years ago on a trip to Cape Hatteras, N.C., around Halloween. He and Bridget stacked their luggage on the roof of their vehicle, and he added a plastic pumpkin. "All I heard on the whole trip was, ‘Hey, that's great! Look at that pumpkin!'? " he says. "I started by doing a Christmas theme, then next year got into Easter, then Fourth of July, then especially Halloween," he says. "Then it just went cuckoo from there."
Zeagler, who still has a slight drawl, was born in Oak Ridge, Tenn., grew up in Virginia Beach, then moved to Elba in 1966 to live with his aunt and uncle. There he met Bridget Jasinski; the two married in 1968.
Zeagler didn't have any costumes when they married, says his wife, "but he was always a lot of fun. We have no children, so we kind of just do things however we feel."
His costumes, all meticulously handmade by Zeagler, fill their home, she says. "He has at least six Christmas hats," she says. "We have at least 30 hats in our house, on top of lampshades and everywhere there is space to put a hat. We had to build a shed because we're getting up in years and it's kind of hard to pull everything out of the cellar."
His costumes "take hours and hours" to make, says Zeagler. "He's constantly updating things," says his wife. "He's very particular about looking good. He adds things, he removes things that are broken, faded or stop working. He will replace things if he finds something better."
While he could probably snap up post-holiday bargains to add to his trove, that's not the way he works, says Bridget Zeagler. "He doesn't wait for sales. If he sees something he wants, he gets it right then." The couple estimates that through the years Zeagler has spent thousands of dollars.
"But, really, the pleasure I get from it is priceless," says Zeagler. "The smiles I get from people are unbelievable. I've had several people come up to me in the last several years and say, ‘I was having the worst day of my life today until I met you. You have made my day.' It makes me feel good that I can have that kind of an impact on somebody."
In the summer, when he wears his patriotic garb and his Jeep is covered with American flags, Bridget Zeagler says, "Military people stop us all the time. Families that have soldiers serving overseas take pictures to send. I swear, there must be pictures of him in every country in the world." The two recall a poignant moment in a Wegmans parking lot in Amherst, when an elderly World War II veteran thanked Zeagler for his display and Zeagler thanked the man for his service. Both men ended up wiping a tear away, Zeagler says.
Zeagler doesn't wear costumes to work at Ken Barrett Chevrolet, where he works delivering parts. But other than that, when he is out, he is decked out.
On a morning visit last week to the Manor House senior residences in Batavia, the Zeaglers chatted with Zeagler's mother, 90-year-old Mary Fillette, who can't resist telling a few jokes herself. Dorothy Coughlin, who taught English at Elba Central School for 34 years and had Mrs. Zeagler in her classes, says, "He's very original in his get-ups." His costume, she points out as Zeagler presses a button to make a stuffed polar bear sing, "is both visual and auditory."
In fact, almost every person – residents, visitors, staff and even delivery people – speaks to Zeagler about his sparkling, moving, jingling costume. All of them leave with a smile.
Zeagler says his biggest fans are children and the elderly, though plenty of teens and adults approach him, too. "If I was not dressed as I was, I would never meet these nice people," he says. "They will either come up to me or when I walk by them, they say, ‘That's really neat.' I never would have met the thousands of people who are so kind and see how great humanity really is."
Zeagler says people often ask him whether he has ever been ticketed by police for his Jeep's decor. He tells them that a few years ago in Henrietta, a police officer followed him for several miles. "I thought, ‘Uh-oh,'?" says Zeagler. "I was afraid he was going to pull me over and tell me to turn off the lights or the music."
Finally, Zeagler pulled over, and the officer pulled up behind him. They both got out, and "I asked him if there was a problem, and he said, ‘Not on my part.' He said, ‘Can I take some pictures of you?' He took pictures of the front, the side, the top of the Jeep, probably 30 pictures. I said, ‘I was afraid you'd make me turn the lights off on the display.' He said, ‘Don't you dare!'?"
Zeagler also says people often ask whether the decorations ever fly off the top of the Jeep. The answer is a definite no. "It's all fixed to the plywood, which is wired to the roof rack I had installed on the Jeep," he says. "I drive all the way to Cape Hatteras with all this stuff on. I don't want to see it coming off in the rearview mirror."
At this time of year, Bridget Zeagler has an advantage over all the people who lose track of their spouses in crowded stores. When they are out together, she says, "I listen for him jingling. That's how I know where he is."