‘The lights are my holidays’: Ivanhoe grandmother finds a sparkling path to joy

Eleni Zakkas’ passion for Christmas lights began in 2005 as somewhat of a hobby, something to do after undergoing 18 months of chemotherapy for lymphoma.

Zakkas installed glowing bells and stars in her loungeroom windows, and strings of little solar lights through the garden of her brick house on Sherwood Road in Ivanhoe.

Ivanhoe resident Eleni Zakkas and her five-year-old granddaughter, also named Eleni.Credit:Jason South

And it felt good, so “every year, I’d buy a little bit, and then a little bit more”, she said. “It makes me very happy.”

Today, the 80-year-old retired milk bar owner has fully recovered, and the house is quite a wonderland at this time of year. She is on first-name terms with staff at a northern suburbs Christmas goods shop, who give her a regular discount.

The Christmas tree in the loungeroom window is a riot of angels, baubles, and pine cones. On the terrace outside is a blow-up Santa Claus playing golf. There are lit-up trains, disco balls, reindeer and a camel. Oh, and a unicorn.

Zakkas says she and her husband, Ilias, 86, who uses a wheelchair, haven’t gone away on holiday for years.

“The lights are my holidays,” she says. “When they’re on, the house doesn’t look the same, it’s another world. I feel ‘it’s Christmas’. When I take them down, I feel sad.”

The lights are on show for a month, until January 5.

After sunset, when they’re switched on, Zakkas likes to sit on the porch, next to the giant Santa statue in the doorway, playing old-time carols and chatting to passersby.

Eleni and Ilias, also known as Louie, migrated separately from northern Greece in the 1960s, and for 30 years until they retired in 2000 ran a milk bar in Wingrove Street, Alphington, in Melbourne’s north-east – next to the butcher shop owned by Eleni’s uncle, Bill Tsigos.

The couple and their children, Dina and Steve, lived in a home behind the shop. There was no room for a garden, let alone a fabulous Christmas lights display.

They worked 14 hours a day, all year. On Christmas Day, the shop would close from 2pm.

Now living in this quiet pocket of Ivanhoe facing the Hurstbridge railway line, a different part of the suburb to the Boulevard Christmas lights, the couple tend 70 rose bushes and the vegie garden of their dreams.

And Zakkas can keep adding to her Christmas lights.

Her daughter, Dina, says: “Wherever she can find a spare space, a window or a brick wall, something pops up on it.” However, “it brings her a lot of joy”.

“And she loves that it brings other people joy, so she feels she’s giving something to the family and community.”

Zakkas, who has three grandchildren, says her neighbours are supportive: one gave her a voucher to buy more lights, and one gave cash towards her power bill.

Onlookers have given her chocolates. “They say, ‘we had a wonderful time, we wait to see the lights, thank you so much’.”

Eleni’s daughter-in-law, Matina Zakkas, said: “She looks forward to it more than anything, and it brings her more joy than anything else.”

One admirer of the lights emailed The Age saying Zakkas “does an amazing display of Christmas lights every year all by herself” and “asks nothing in return”.

“We need more community people like her and need to promote and celebrate them,” the correspondent said.

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