Croat's Christmas Now Comes With A Million Lights (VIDEO)

GRABOVNICA, Croatia (Reuters) - Zlatko Salaj has come a long way from the bleak Christmases of his youth.

The 67-year old former telecommunications engineer has turned his country estate in Grabovnica, central Croatia, into a festival of light and color that attracts thousands of visitors every year.

Starting in 2002 with 70,000 light bulbs hung on each of the hundreds of small trees and shrubs on his 7-hectare (17 acres) estate, Salaj has this year lit 1.2 million lights, many in the shape of Santa Claus, his sleigh and reindeer.

"My childhood was really... we were poor. My father had a mill but it was destroyed in World War Two. On top of that, my mother left us when I was four so father and I ended up alone," he told Reuters.

After a career spent abroad, mostly in the Middle East and Africa, Salaj returned home and set about the project, which he named "Christmas Story."

"It was a sensation in the whole region, particularly for children. People asked me how many lights I would use the following year and I said '100,000'. So the number grew more and more each year."

He and his family laid 5 km (3 miles) of underground electricity cables and almost 180 km of wires placed on trees and shrubs. Every year he takes almost three months to prepare and another three to dismantle the decoration.

The electricity bill for last December alone totaled some 70,000 kuna ($12,500) so Salaj started charging a small entry fee, but has no intention of stopping.

"God willing, we might have a nice surprise for Easter," he said.

($1 = 5.5999 Croatian kunas)

(Reporting by David Spaic Kovacic, editing by Paul Casciato)