Americans may penny-pinch in other areas this season, but Christmas means seeing the light — and for some, the more the merrier. Come December, many families take their competitive spirit to new heights, because if there were an Olympics for holiday lights, we’d take the gold.
For example, in Anchorage, Alaska, the Lorangers shine 20,000 bulbs on a homemade Santa fishing from a pool of lights. At the Wills’ home in Mendota Falls, Minnesota, some 150 candy canes light up the exterior. A thousand miles west in Tuscon, Arizona, cacti sparkle. Down in Marble Falls, Texas, an electrified twirling lariat spells out Merry Christmas Y’All.
According to David Seidman, author of Holiday Lights!, Christmas lights began as a winter solstice ritual. When the nights grew long and bitter cold, people would bring in evergreens and burn slabs of wood. Eventually, this became the Yule log, and candle-lit trees soon followed.
In 1879, when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, his assistant Edward Johnson took some home and lit up his own Christmas tree. The fashion became tradition when President Grover Cleveland put electric lights on the White House tree. Then in the late 1940’s and 50’s, when electricity became affordable, it became all the rage to decorate home exteriors.
This tradition still continues. And while some may not string 600,000 lights on their house this season, it doesn’t take much to dazzle and delight both kids and adults.
Here are David Seidman’s 10 wildest neighborhoods that parlay tradition into high-wattage celebration:
Neighboring row houses on the 700 block of 34th Street are decorated in blinding style, with reindeer and elves on rooftops to show Santa the way. Season’s Greetings signs large enough to rival department stores and illuminated nativity scenes dominate the landscape. Since the historic homes are attached, sleighs, deer, and lights gallop from rooftop to rooftop. In suburban Columbia, the Symphony Woods on Little Patuxent Parkway features more than 70 light sculptures.
Bill Clot’s Miami home, on Southwest 119th features more than 600,000 lights. Wrapping the 50,000 square foot property requires two bucket trucks, 500 extension cords, and thousands in lighting bills. An executive in the aircraft industry, he’s obsessed with Christmas décor. He’s happiest creating ice-skating penguins gliding along a frozen pond or illuminated toy trains circling on more than 700 feed of track. The richness and scale of Clot’s invention is exhilarating. NBC’s "Today Show" calls it the best display in America. Every year, Clot gives out more than 50,000 candy canes to visitors, and through donations boxes at the display, the Clot family raised more than $400,000 for the Women’s Cancer Association at the University of Miami.
Austin and Interlochen, Texas
One of the country’s biggest displays, the 37th Street Austin fest began with one resident about 15 years ago. Jamie Lipman is credited with starting what’s fondly called the “Lightmare on 37th street.” The extravaganza has included a Volkswagen lit up inside and out with a skeleton at the wheel, a menorah made out of liquor bottles, and a giant peace sign.
Nearby at the Littlefield home, animated Santas are dancing fools moving to the groove of James Brown. Even children icons are called into play — Barney the dinosaur is tied to railroad tracks, while Barbie rides a pink flamingo.
Close competition comes from Austin’s Zilker Park neighborhood. Not as wacky, but equally elaborate. Enter the park through a multicolored tunnel of bulbs and find the Cat in the Hat, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and a canopy of stars. Light strands form a Christmas tree more than 150 feet tall.
Or check out the Blanco County Courthouse in Johnson City, Texas and Lakeside Park in Marble Falls. In Lake Marble Falls, the golden reflection of the city’s million-plus lights on the water are so stunning that visitors are transfixed. The city courthouse looks like a wedding cake with filigree and swirling lights: ironically, it’s a place people are awarded long-term commitments — to jail.
The Interlochen neighborhood in Arlington has been shining for more than 25 years. The total number of illuminated homes tops 200 with carolers and brass bands also on display. A local airline even offers aerial tours of the neighborhood.
In the tiny town of Gatlinburg, 4,000 people mobilize their originality for more than 25,000 visitors, a virtual Smoky Mountain Winterfest that includes the Dollywood theme park.
McAdenville, North Carolina
This is a nondescript hamlet dominated by the Pharr yarns textile mill. The local men’s club started decorating houses for Christmas in 1956. Today more than 400,000 lights cover McAdenville. Construction is so massive, it begins in August. When North Carolina’s heat and humidity reigns, McAdenvillers are checking each bulb for breakage and burn-out, and start stringing lights. Some trees in the town square are covered with more than 5,000 lights a piece. There is a Santa, sleigh, and reindeer combo that runs more than 70 feet, a lighted image of Old Man Winter nearly 50 feet long blowing snowflakes, and gingerbread houses with candy-cane fences.
Brooklyn, New York
The comfortable, old-fashioned Italian-American enclave of Dyker Heights has included a Small World home with rotating globe, snowflakes the size of linebackers, and a life-size boys choir frozen mid-hymn and looking as pious as plastic allows. The true champ is Alfred Polizzotto, a real estate lawyer who began decorating his house in celebration of his recovery from cancer. After his Greek Revival mansion took on gigantic modern Christmas décor, others followed suit. Nutcracker soldiers more than 25-feet tall flank the doors. Santa grins from the balcony.
The City and County Building in Downtown Denver is an incredibly dignified temple of civic power, with a double arch like the Vatican and Grecian marble columns. Come Christmas, it’s covered in red, yellow, and green lights like a bizarre acid trip imposed on serious federalist architecture. Wildlights, a two-mile route, starts at the Denver Zoo and features animated animals. The Denver Botanical gardens features 20 acres of illuminated ponds and paths.
Walt Disney World: Orlando, Florida
A decade ago, Little Rock resident Jennings Osborne put 3 million lights on his house in a traffic-stopping spectacle. Neighbors took legal action, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. Bankrupt, Osborne finally unplugged. The Walt Disney Company, however, liked his imagination and Osborne’s obsession became a new career. The Osborne Family Festival of Lights, one of the only things in the park with a non-Disney moniker, has every outside surface and lawn illuminated with Godzilla-size Mickeys and Santas.
Bizarre in Burbank might seem status quo. Still, when homeowner Dick Norton crams his front lawn full of hundreds of animated figures and thousands of lights, coupled with a full-size merry-go-round with Kermit the Frog, one marvels at his verve. Wooden children go up and down on teeter-totters, a Ferris wheel takes stuffed animals for a ride, Santa pops out of a jack-in-the-box, and a North Pole Express train with smoke coming out the cylinders circles the house. “Noel”, spelled in 10-foot letters made of bulbs, alights the roof, along with a plane piloted by Snoopy. Reindeer made by his mother drink coffee, presumably to stay warm, and polar bears ride Santa’s sleigh. Icicle strands drip from rain gutters, lampposts and the roof.
The town was dying until residents reinvented it as a drive-in Bavarian Village lit each winter with enough excess to stop traffic and attract 40,000 visitors. Even the local McDonald’s looks like a beer hall. Music, German foods, a lantern parade and lights cover virtually every surface.