Christmas Lights, Taken to Extremes

Who are the people who spend thousands of dollars to festoon their homes with thousands of colored bulbs?

Few feel the weight of the holiday season like Al Thompson. Every year since 1999, Thompson, 64, has covered the exterior of his suburban home, just outside Richmond, Va., with approximately 170,000 lights, as well as 500 Christmas-themed figures—all built from scratch. The process, which begins after Labor Day, takes 400 hours. His electrical bill for December 2009 was $1,128.23.

For Thompson, this is merely the price of a job well done. In the past decade, his home has attracted tens of thousands of light-show groupies from across America and more than 65 foreign countries. "We have regulars now," he says. In 2007, Thompson beat out New York City's Fifth Avenue in USA Today's "10 great places to plug into the Christmas spirit." More important, last year he won the coveted Most Likely To Be Seen From Space award from Tacky Light Tour, a Christmas-light enthusiast website. "There's a lot of pressure to perform," Thompson says with a sigh. "People have pretty big expectations."

More than 80 million homes in the U.S. are publicly decorated for Christmas every year, according to light manufacturer Minami International. And thanks in part to Thompson, Richmond has become the capital of the lighting universe. In 1986 local DJ Barry "Mad Dog" Gottlieb hosted an informal bus tour of Richmond's excessively decorated homes during the Christmas season. Tour guests were fed beer and cookies and encouraged to nominate their favorite houses for a variety of awards, including "Mass Quantity," "Overall Wattage," "Acid Flashback," and the coveted "Holy S---! Factor." Within a few years, the holiday cheer had turned into a fierce competition among residents. "People would be very upset if their houses weren't picked," Gottlieb says. "I thought, 'We're going to start a war here if we're not careful!'" Although Gottlieb retired his tour after a few years, it spawned dozens of Tacky Light Tour imitators. Some companies, like Winn Bus Tours, now charge up to $550 for a four-hour guided tour of the city's many lighted attractions.

In 2004, Matt Burgess launched The Tacky Lights Tour website as an interactive resource for visitors looking to lead their own Christmas tours of Richmond. As the site's popularity grew, Burgess expanded it to include photos, addresses, and driving directions to garishly decorated houses in 167 cities in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Denmark, and the U.K. "It seems to be growing organically each year," says Burgess. There's only one qualification for a house to be featured on the site. It must have no less than 10,000 Christmas lights on display. "My Web traffic has doubled every year," says Burgess. "And so has the number of lights."

Not everyone has the time or inclination to personally cover their home with 10,000-plus lights. That's why there are professionals. Josh Barnett, the founder and president of the Bakersfield (Calif.)-based Lightasmic!, works primarily with local governments and theme parks but also offers his services to homeowners, especially if their lighting needs are "extreme." A Lightasmic! production can cost anywhere from $20,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the client's demands. "As Christmas lights become more advanced, clients are looking for the next 'wow'—both technically and artistically," says Barnett. "If you gave me half a million dollars, I'll give you a lighting design that will rock your socks off."

While the number of lights matters, how you use them is just as important. Alek Komarnitsky, an engineer living outside Boulder, Colo., rarely decorates his home with more than 20,000 lights, but he beams the images each year from a trio of thousand-dollar webcams on his property to 500,000 adoring Internet visitors in 157 different countries. Since 2005, Internet viewers have been able to break down the fourth wall of holiday lighting by controlling the appearance of Komarnitsky's house from their desktops using X10 powerline technology. ("It has issues," he says of the equipment, "but I don't need millisecond response times and 99.999 percent accuracy.") In a glimpse of the Christmas lighting future, viewers can inflate and deflate large renditions of Frosty, Santa, and Homer Simpson from their desktops. "It can sometimes be a battle for control," he says.

For people who take their holiday lighting displays seriously, websites such as Tacky Christmas Yards and Ugly Christmas Lights—which poke gentle fun at homes decorated with all the subtlety of a Dubai hotel lobby—pose a serious threat. Kat Shumar, who started Tacky Christmas Yards in 2007, gets photo contributions of illuminated homes from around the country and categorizes them on his site by "violation," such as "Unharmonious Arrangement," "Seizur-ific," and "Frequent Lighter Card." According to Shumar: "People turn in their photos and allow me to say what everyone is thinking."

Perhaps not what everyone's thinking. The Ugly Christmas Lights site, launched in 2002 by Matt Phillips, has received plenty of disturbing e-mails over the years—including one that compared him, inexplicably, to Osama bin Laden. "Christmas lights can be a sensitive subject," says Phillips. He insists he's not mocking the holiday, but "just people's lack of decorating skills."

As divisive as Christmas lights can sometimes be, they also bring people together. Al Thompson remembers a Russian couple who traveled from Moscow on Christmas Eve 2008 just to see his light show. Thompson and his new friends reminisced about their childhoods, during which they were both warned to fear the other's respective country. Only at that moment, united by their shared appreciation for holiday excess, did they understand just how misplaced their paranoia really was. Says Thompson: "I still get goosebumps whenever I think about it."

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