By Morgan LaVallee, MFA
Few things inspire the Christmas spirit more than an evening out with family, driving through neighborhoods to admire Christmas lights through the soft December flurry of snow. But for a select few, it is not just enough to see the lights. For some extreme enthusiasts, the monumental task of planning, designing, and creating the intricate light displays is a cornerstone of their holiday joy.
Competitive Christmas light competitions have popped up in communities and neighborhoods across America. These real-life Griswolds take holiday decorating to the extreme, entering local contests in hopes of earning the first place prize of ultimate Christmas pride. For many, collecting and decorating with Christmas lights is a staple in their holiday tradition.
To competitive Christmas light decorators, it is not just a mere collection, but rather years of dedication, planning, and researching new and emerging light displays and technological advances in the field. It means countless hours outside in the rainy October and November chill, standing on ladders and untangling yard after yard of stringed lights, in hopes that none from last season are blown out.
For my parents, the defending champions of the Village of Jefferson’s Gazette Outdoor Lighting Competition, this year’s competition is countless hours of hard work in the making. John Pitts and Rebecca Hall moved in 2011 to the Village of Jefferson, a picturesque example of beautiful small town Ohio.
They began with a modest collection of lights and decorations, energizing the row of historic homes along the street previously known for the occasional lights. With each year, they built bigger and brighter displays. By 2013, the all-out festivity was contagious.
Maintaining a championship house is no easy feat. Christmas light season begins in November, and it’s a combination of research, planning, and execution. With each new season the motif changes. Extraordinary lights are not made from the average home goods store alone.
No, it takes hours of research, and scrolling through obscure Christmas light websites that not only serve as inspiration, but sell actual decorations as well. When online or store-bought lights are not creative enough, they turn to the toolbox, creating displays of their very own. It is truly one-of-a-kind.
How else could they compete without their hand-sculpted, life-sized sleigh and horse made from chicken wire gliding through a homemade Christmas forest of glistening wood pallet trees? Or their Santa Claus, standing more than five feet tall, climbing the house’s red brick chimney with a sack full of toys, which requires three adults to hoist into place and secure onto the roof. With each Christmas season, the pieces increase in number and in extraordinary quality. This year’s creation is still top secret.
It takes three full weekends, twelve hours a day, sun up to sun down. They dress in warm clothing with thick gloves, climbing ladders to daringly hang dripping lights, place lasers, and secure strand after strand of LED lights. Together, they paint a winter scene with ever bolder and bolder splashes of color. Sun, rain, or feet upon feet of snow (it is the snow belt of Ohio), over the course of the month of November the entire property is transformed into a magical, Christmas winter wonderland.
It’s like extreme endurance sport meets artistic competition. Throughout the month in the middle of the night, my parents will sneak outside the dimly lit, quiet, white colonial house to turn on the lights, testing the progress that they have made. Passersby will sneak a peek along the way, stopping by to see a preview of the festivity soon to come.
Try as they may, no one, not even family, get to see the full display until the night of Thanksgiving during the official lighting ceremony that takes place every year just after dusk, and right after dinner.
Year after year, their collection has increased. Although the Christmas light season is a short one, falling from the beginning of November until New Year’s Day, the off-season is just as crucial to the overall success. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, it has all become an excuse to find and build their precious light collection. The exact number of strings of lights is unknown, and their origins a carefully guarded secret, but the reserve continues to expand. After all, it is a competition.
Having won the 2017 and 2015 Gazette Outdoor Lighting Championship and a separate 2013 competition as well, I asked about just that: The competition. Their answer is clear: The competition is not the neighbors, but their own pictures from the years before. It is not about being the best. They only want to be better than themselves.
When asked why they continue every year and why they untangle lights and spend weekends on top of the ladder steps, their answer is simple: It is for the people. It is for the children who leave thank you letters in the mailbox, and for the families who drive by, and for those who park in front of the house, forming a line of admiring cars. It is for the neighbors, who expand their own collections more and more, and for the entire neighborhood street, which has become a must-see for those in the holiday spirit.
In order to encourage others to enter, my parents only compete every other year. For them, it is not about the number of wins. Extreme Christmas lighting is not a game won by a single household, but rather a contagious display of joy that allows a community to shine.
For more information about the Jefferson Depot Village events and activities, visit the website jeffersonvillagedepot.org. Information about the Chamber of Commerce Country Christmas events, charity run, and signature Christmas parade can be found at jeffersonchamber.org
Holiday Light Competition