On a cold December night, vehicles filled with wide-eyed onlookers drive slowly past the residence of Glenn and Christina Barber in Spring Hill, Tenn. (pop. 7,715), marveling at the 35,000 Christmas lights that adorn the home topped with an 8-foot-tall illuminated cross.
Curt and Amy McArthy idle their Dodge Caravan on the street as their four children gaze at the Barber home through their minivan windows. “This is light town!” exclaims Emma, 5, as she scans the glowing displays of polar bears, trains, Santa Claus, angels, and a Nativity in the front yard.
“I like the train because it flashes,” adds her sister Abby, 7.
For the McArthy family, touring neighborhood Christmas lights is memorable and inexpensive entertainment. For Glenn Barber, such families are the reason he spends nearly every free waking moment between Halloween and Thanksgiving decorating his home in bulbs and his yard with family-friendly light displays.
“It’s all about the kids,” says Barber, 52. “I love the look on their faces when the cars drive by slowly and the parents roll down the windows and point at our home and tell their kids, ‘Look at that! See the Santa? See the reindeer?’ For that brief moment, everybody is smiling.”
In the beginning
For Barber, lights are a nostalgic holiday memory of his boyhood in Houston, where he “used nails to put up the big, old-timey bulbs on the eaves of our house while my mother would decorate the inside.”
His interest was rekindled some 45 years later when he and his wife moved in 2002 to Spring Hill. “I asked him to throw a few lights in the yard for Christmas,” Christina says. “Once he got started, he never stopped.”
Each holiday season, their modest, three-bedroom bungalow is transformed into a traffic-stopping light show extravaganza. In the process, Barber has become an amateur electrician, mapping out each year’s display beginning in April, then spending a full month executing his plan in time for a Thanksgiving debut. He uses more than a hundred 40-foot extension cords and six circuit breakers, including four outdoor ones dubbed John, Paul, George and Ringo—after the Beatles. True, his light bill increases every December by about $300, “but so what?” says Barber, a fiscal analyst for the Tennessee Legislature. “To me, it’s $300 worth of enjoyment I’ve gotten from doing it.”
Barber stores everything in his attic, customized with numbered shelves that correspond to a computerized inventory of lights and equipment. “If somebody asks for mini-lights, I can quickly find them in box No. 7 on shelf No. 6,” he says.
The obsession is the source of good-natured banter with his wife. “My theory is ‘More is more,’” he says. “She’s the one in charge of good taste.” Replies Christina: “We don’t have a cluttered look—yet. But I don’t know how long I can keep him under control. If he sees an empty space in the yard, he thinks it has to be filled.”
Outdoor holiday lights came into vogue beginning in the 1950s, with large-bulb, multicolored strands adorning rooflines, gutters, windows and doors to add a look of cheery warmth to houses on dreary winter nights.
Over the last 50 years, the displays have steadily grown and become increasingly elaborate thanks to technological advances and the availability of less expensive lights. Today, you’ll find entire yards gift wrapped in a maze of bulbs, moving displays controlled by computer programs, and Las Vegas-style light shows set to music on short-wave radio. v Regardless of how elaborate the display, light enthusiasts across the country share a common bond—they want to bring joy to others, says Chuck Smith, founder of www.planetchristmas.com, a website devoted to people who love to light their homes during the holidays.
“Everyone can remember as a kid that one house in their town or neighborhood that went over the top when it came to decorating for Christmas,” says Smith, 53, an electrical engineer in Franklin, Tenn. (pop. 41,842). “That’s what we all try to do. We all want to be that one guy who goes over the top.”
For 30 years, Smith was that guy. At its peak, his home shone with 130,000 miniature lights connected by seven miles of wire, all controlled by a computer and nearly 400 circuits. “I’d go outside and listen to all the people who came to see, and everyone was always in a good mood,” he says. “I knew I was making lifelong memories for all of them.”
Smith stopped his residential light show after Christmas 2003 when neighborhood traffic got so heavy that he had to hire off-duty police officers to keep cars moving. These days, he brings smiles to faces by putting up his display at a local shopping center.
The Christmas guy
In Monroe, N.Y. (pop. 7,780), Anthony Volpe, 37 is known year-round as the Christmas guy for the elaborate light display on his home each December. “I’ll walk into the deli and people say, ‘Oh, that’s the Christmas guy,’” he says. “It may be the middle of July, and I’m still the Christmas guy.”
When it’s all lit up, his Victorian-style home resembles a giant gingerbread house with a wraparound porch and custom-built light displays, including a 13-by-9-foot U.S. flag. “My last display had 90,000 lights,” says Volpe, who’s employed as an excavator. “The meter was spinning like a CD outside.”
Despite an $800 December electric bill, all the work and money is worth it. “Christmas lights just seem to get everybody in the holiday spirit, including me,” Volpe says.
His Franklin Avenue light show has become so popular that he started putting out candy canes for kids and a collection box for anyone with a charitable heart. Over three years, he raised $3,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
“It’s been a real joy in our community,” says Virginia Carey, the village clerk who can see Volpe’s display from her kitchen window. “It does draw traffic, but everyone takes that into consideration and they slow down. It’s very tastefully done.”
Christmas in the desert
In the Arizona desert, Michael Anderson, 24, uses his computer skills to combine the magic of twinkling lights with Christmas music. As a boy, Anderson played with Legos and anything else that let him build and create. Now a college student, he continues to create at his family’s home in Scottsdale, Ariz., only now with computer controllers and about 35,000 lights, all synchronized to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “The Chipmunk Song” and eight other holiday classics.
Anderson has taken classes in animated lighting and hooked up an FM transmitter so passersby can tune their car radios to 88.9 and enjoy his light show with music. “There’s always about five cars parked outside watching,” he says. “I’ve seen tour buses and limousines come by. It makes me feel really good that I’m helping other people enjoy the holiday season.”
Despite the expense and traffic, Rosemary Anderson approves wholeheartedly of her son’s annual project. “He just loves to bring joy to other people,” she says. “I think it’s his way of making the world a better place.”