PROVIDENCE — Giovanni Cipolla climbed a ladder leaning against the neck of the Big Blue Bug and scooted himself along the top of its head. As Cipolla clipped his harness onto a wood brace, Anthony Lisi balanced the red “nose” against his shoulder.
Cars whizzed by on the highway only a few yards away, and a few motorists craned their necks and honked in salute. They knew what was happening.
A red blinking nose the size of a large drum. Antlers as tall as a first-grader. Strings of white lights — about 7,000 bulbs — long enough to wrap from head to abdomen, including six legs and fiberglass wings.
Other states can keep their boring Christmas trees. For Rhode Island, the holiday season kicks off with the lighting of Nibbles Woodaway, the giant termite overlooking Interstate 95.
Nibbles is anchored to the roof of Big Blue Bug Solutions, which is hosting the 27th annual holiday lighting ceremony Monday.
The countdown for the lighting of the Big Blue Bug will be carried live on local TV news and streamed on Facebook. It’s Rhode Island’s answer to the ball drop in Times Square.
“This is Rhode Island pride,” said Cipolla. “It never gets old.”
That means the display must be perfect. There can’t be any “Griswold moments,” as Cipolla put it.
So, Cipolla and Lisi, electricians and best friends, were on the roof more than a week before the lighting. They estimated it would take about 32 hours to decorate the Bug, not including the many, many times that they would test the lights before the grand show.
Duff Electric Corp., where Cipolla is vice president, has been doing this work since the beginning. Cipolla’s father, Antonio, and Stephan Goldman, CEO of the exterminator company, are friends, so when Goldman asked for help with the lights years ago, Cipolla agreed.
“He didn’t know what he was getting into,” Giovanni Cipolla said.
After years of standing on ladders to reach the nose, Cipolla recruited Lisi, of Dual Voltage, to help him this year — and bring his bucket truck. And, there they were two Saturdays ago, Cipolla up over the roof, and Lisi steadying the red nose.
As the men worked, a bitter wind whipped across the Providence River, cutting across the roofs of an asphalt company and strip club on the other side of the highway.
“Some days we come here and have to leave because the wind is so bad, it’s brutal,” Cipolla said. “Especially with the water right across the way. It’s very unforgiving.”
Nearly 40 years ago, the Bug was born of a marketing idea when New England Pest Control moved to the building facing I-95 and the exit to Interstate 195.
Noticing all of those people driving by each day, the family-owned company thought of a way to get attention:
Why not put a 58-foot, 2-ton Eastern Subterranean Termite on the roof?
Brian Goldman, whose grandfather, Leonard Goldman, founded the company, said they never anticipated how popular the mascot would become. So much so, that they eventually renamed the company Big Blue Bug Solutions.
Since it landed on the roof in 1980, the giant termite has burrowed its way into the hearts of Rhode Islanders. There are “Nibbles for President” shirts, cameos in movies and TV specials, plush toys, and postcards. It’s been a backdrop for wedding proposals and inspired its own Awful Awful shake at Newport Creamery (made with blue raspberry syrup and chocolate jimmies).
“This is a quirky state, and Nibbles just adds to it,” Goldman said.
Not just quirky, but reliable. In 2002, when Nibbles was taken off the roof to be refurbished, the company heard from unhappy motorists who claimed they got lost because the Big Blue Bug was gone.
One couple driving from New York called the office when they realized they’d missed the exit for I-195 to Cape Cod, Goldman said. They’d been told to turn right at the termite.
Without Nibbles, the couple ended up driving halfway to Boston.
“It shows how much of a landmark it is,” said Goldman. “Only in Rhode Island can you say, ‘Take a right at the Bug.’ ”
Nibbles really gets fancy around the holidays. The giant termite has an Uncle Sam hat for the Fourth of July, sunglasses and Del’s for summer, a witch’s hat for Halloween, and, of course, the Rudolph getup for Christmas.
“It’s become a good tradition,” Goldman said. “How many states get to say they light a bug for the holidays? It’s special.”
No one says the same for Rhode Island’s official Christmas tree. The State House tree is either too small, too dead, or too likely to draw the wrong kind of attention — like when then-Governor Lincoln Chafee called it a “holiday tree,” whipping talk radio and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly into a furor.
The New York Post sneered one year that Rhode Island’s tree was “the saddest state capital Christmas tree.”
Maybe no Christmas tree can survive the political rancor. Stuck in the grand rotunda, the tree’s sole audience is typically politicians, lobbyists, government staffers, and whoever has business there. It’s no wonder the tree looks depressed.
But, from its perch overlooking the highway, where 165,000 vehicles pass each day, the Christmas Bug is there for the people.
Nibbles has been shot, spray painted, battered by blizzards and hurricanes.
Through it all, the Bug abides.
The body is peppered with wood screws to hold the strings of lights in place. When Benny’s, a beloved Rhode Island retail chain, closed in 2017, the Goldmans bought out all of the white LED lights and expect to have enough to keep Nibbles decorated for years to come.
Two Saturdays ago, after securing the nose, Cipolla and Lisi opened the cases of lights and began connecting the strands, making sure they were working.
For the rest of the week and up until the ceremony, Cipolla would test the lights and check to make sure the wind didn’t knock the red nose out of joint.
Down in the company office, employees fielded calls and e-mails from people asking when the lighting would take place. The crowd has been growing, from about 50 to 100 people in previous years to several hundred packed in the back parking lot last year.
Goldman is hoping for “an intimate, meaningful ceremony” this year. The special guests are local celebrities Ron and Pete Cardi, of Cardi’s Furniture, invited in memory of their brother, Nick, who died this summer.
The ceremony starts at 5 p.m., and, as always, there will be caroling and refreshments and speeches. And then, the countdown from 10.
As the crowd chants and the Cardi brothers prepare to pull the ceremonial “switch,” Cipolla will be nearby, his heart pounding, waiting for the signal, ready to power up Nibbles.
The red nose will blink. The antlers, wings, and body will be aglow with white lights.
And Rhode Island’s holiday season will officially begin.