Meet the Man Who Makes Oconee Diner’s Elaborate Christmas Display, A Long Island Tradition

By Toni Gallo

Head chef Bill Thompson, 70, has worked at the Oconee Diner in Islip since 1964, and has been responsible for the restaurant’s trademark holiday look – chock full of lights, opulence, and glamor – for the past 40 years.

“How do you walk out of here in a bad mood, when you see all these decorations?” a woman can be heard saying as she exits the diner.

It’s just not Christmas without the Oconee Diner’s over-the-top display and the Islip restaurant has been delighting customers with its one-of-a kind decorations for decades.

“I started decorating the diner for Christmas in the 80s. Twenty-three years ago we switched owners, and they kept me on as the decorator,” he said with a laugh.

Oconee Diner

Thompson mentions how through the years, the diner’s over-the-top look has evolved into something people anticipate.

“People truly come from all over to see our lights,” he said. “Families recognize me putting up the blow ups outside, and go, ‘You’re the guy! Thank you for all this.’”

Thompson has become a local celebrity of sorts for the display.

“It’s made me famous,” he said. “Peoples’ reactions keep me motivated to keep going. I once heard a kid tell someone in his family, before everything was completely set for Christmas, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait ‘till it’s done!’”

And with the added pressure of people expecting bigger and better every year, Thompson recruited some help.

Oconee Diner

“As the diner’s decorations became more elaborate, I had my wife, Ruth Ann start helping me make the wreaths and wagon wheels,” he said. “We keep everything very organized, by keeping all the reusable decorations in numbered bins, in the diner’s basement.”

The diner’s decorative atmosphere doesn’t actually stop after Christmastime. Thompson keeps the diner adorned all year.

“I begin decorating for Valentine’s Day in January then, I quickly get ready for St. Patrick’s Day, something I began making more elaborate through the years, after a large influx of Irish immigrants came to the area in the ‘90s,” he says. “Then I do Easter, which is not as crazy, and then set up the American decorations, so they are ready by Memorial Day.”

The decorating continues all year long, according to Thompson.

“Those stay up through the 4th of July, and go until 9/11, where I put even more flags around the diner’s outside perimeter, out of respect,” he said. “And, then it all comes back around to fall themed decorations, which are added onto during Thanksgiving, etc. etc.”

Oconee Diner

Thompson does most of his decorating after the diner closes but you can catch him in action decorating the place during business hours as well. One of the things he loves most about Christmas is that it has become a yearly tradition where families celebrate year after year.

“I’ve seen people coming to see the decorations since their childhood,” he said.

Visit the Oconee Diner at 749 Montauk Hwy in Islip.

Toni-Elena Gallo is a reporter with The SBU Media Group, part of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism’s Working Newsroom program for students and local media. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *