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US-CHRISTMAS-LIGHTS
People enjoy the Christmas lights on the 700 block of 34th Street in the Hampden community of Baltimore, Maryland on December 12, 2014. Mladen Antonov—AFP/Getty Images

What It's Like To Be a Hardcore Christmas Light Homeowner

There was a time, years ago, when Richard Holdman knew exactly which holiday song was playing outside his Pleasant Grove, Utah home without hearing a note. Was it a Christmas miracle? Nope — the lights inside his house were flickering to the music.

For several years, Holdman, like many people overflowing with the holiday cheer, turned his house into an epic Christmas lighting display. Not merely content with decking the halls, these extreme revelers Griswold their houses in all manner of lights, blow-ups, animatronics, garland and holly. Requiring plenty of advance planning and causing holiday headaches aplenty, being a hardcore holiday home decorator isn't for the faint of Christmas spirit. But in return, they're guaranteed to have days (well, nights) that are merry and bright.

Christmas Lights in July

"I started it really small, actually, and throughout the years it got bigger and bigger," says Holdman, who lit up his home from 2006 to 2010. Small, by the way, was 1,000 bulbs. Bigger was 40,000 lights. And ultimately, he topped out at 120,000 twinkling LEDs — all choreographed to music.

There's a chance you've actually seen Holdman's setup. In Dec. 2009, he posted a YouTube video of his animated lights flickering to Amazing Grace. To date, it's gotten 40 million views and counting:

Holdman would begin setting up his lights just after Halloween. Because he did it himself after work and on weekends, it took the entire month of November just to get them up. But that's not the half of it. He'd actually start planning the next year's displays after Christmas, buying lights during post-holiday sales. Then in January he'd sketch out his ideas. Over the summer, he'd start testing out new setups.

One year, while testing displays inside his home, a neighbor came by, worried that the house was on fire. "It was the middle of the summer, and the windows were glowing all red and white," Holdman says.

Another hardcore Christmas light enthusiast, Michelle Cairo of Portland, Ore., also makes her holiday plans year-round. A strip of high-peaked Tudors known as Peacock Lane, her street has put up lights going back to the 1940s. More than a quarter-million people come to visit the area every year.

The neighbors meet year round to coordinate the street's mass lighting display. A committee president conducts the meetings. They have a free hot cocoa booth, which each house must take turns staffing. They also hang candy canes on trees and swap out the streetlight covers so the lamps don't overpower the house's displays. And they have to decorate their homes, too.

"Everything is covered in lights," says Cairo. "The hardest thing is hitting the houses' peaks."

You Would Even Say It Glows

For all the ladders, gutter clips, wreaths, and bows a massive light display involves, it's also a technical challenge. And choosing between old-school incandescent bulbs and new-wave LEDs strands is no frivolous decision.

When Holdman first started, he used incandescent C9 bulbs. He's since made the leap to LEDs. While the old-school bulbs are bigger and emit a warmer, more natural light, they're energy hogs, driving up electrical bills and stressing the grid. LEDs use much less energy, which means you can plug in more strands without overloading a circuit.

But their light quality can vary wildly, so you have to be particular about what you buy. "When LEDs first came out, they would put a really small LED in there, and sure enough, it's going to look not nearly as bright," says Holdman. "But now that they make C9 LED bulbs, and they actually put five LEDs in that one bulb, so you can get just as bright or brighter with LEDs."

Holdman also notes that there's two kinds of LEDs: half-wave and full-wave. Full-wave LEDs are twice as bright as half-wave. "If I'm buying the cheapest lights at Wal-Mart, those are usually going to be half-wave lights, and they will not be as bright," he says.

Prior to changing to LEDs, Holdman had to install 17 dedicated 20-amp circuits just to power his light show — and even then it would gobble up to about 75% of his house's electrical capacity. "When the show was going, you couldn't use the oven and you had to make sure no one turned on the dryer," he says. Holdman sets the lights to music using a Light-o-rama controller, which links all the strands to choreographic software.

Cairo, meanwhile, has two dedicated circuits with built-in timers installed by the home's previous owner. While she doesn't put up anywhere near the amount of lights that Holdman did, her home's electrical system does waiver a bit every day around 6 p.m., when her neighborhood's lights turn on every night. The neighbors have a lights-off policy that begins at 11 p.m. "If we left the lights on all night long, people would be coming all night long," she says.

Everything is traditional on Peacock Lane; you won't find laser light shows here. As a result, the street has stuck largely with the C9s, partly out of aesthetics and partly out of convenience. One neighbor who has a more modern taste opted for the new bulbs. "They regret the decision," says Cairo. "He's had a ton of issues and everyone's been watching that happen with him, and we'll never do LED lights."

After nine years of scaling ladders to set up her lights — an effort that can take up to three days, with another three for teardown — Cairo now pays a local painter to get the job done. He handles the high installations, as well as putting lights on the trees and everywhere else, for $700. "It's a busy time of year, so it's worth it," she says.

Getting in the Spirit

Down on Candy Cane Lane in Des Moines, Iowa's Beaverdale neighborhood, Matt Dore is hoping this is his year. Every year, the 50-or-so homes in the neighborhood try to outdo each other in a friendly neighborhood contest. "We're the Susan Lucci of the Christmas light competition," Dore says. "I think we won third prize in the entryway category one year, but we've never won the whole thing."

Well, that's not entirely true. According to Dore, his house did win the Des Moines Christmas light competition — in 1931. The house appeared on the front page of the paper all lit up, but it's been dark on the awards front ever since.

Still, for Dore and his neighbors, the real reward is in lighting up other people's nights. The streets became known as Candy Cane Lane after they lined the road with red-striped PVC pipe decorations. To head off the cold weather, the neighbors tend to put their lights up early in the year. Dore says he did it on election weekend this year.

And the only downside is traffic. "You can get out of your driveway, but you may have to wait a while," he says. "But if you're trying to get home and you can't get to your house, there's no way around that — you're stuck in a line, because people will turn off their lights and go five miles an hour."

Traffic is also what eventually snuffed out Holdman's epic lighting display. After one too many cold pizza deliveries, his homeowners' association voted that he had to take his lights down. "That year, in the front yard, I put up an inflatable Grinch — and that was my only Christmas display," says Holdman. "Those who supported me, they thought it was hilarious; it was all done in good humor."

Holdman's been laughing about it all the way to the bank. After posting the YouTube video, people reached out and started asking him to set up lighting displays for them professionally. "My first jobs were for like local malls, little small businesses," he says. "From there, more people started seeing it, international people, so then they started contacting me." To date, he's done light shows in Argentina, Peru, Moscow, and South Korea, as well as all over the U.S. He also recently opened a business called Christmas In Color, which sets up 1-million-light driving displays, all synced to music. And despite putting up 10 times more lights, the setup is similar.

"I actually use the same stuff now as I did back then," he says. "Well, there's a little bit different stuff, but It's the same concept just on much a bigger scale."

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