or, Help! I've created a monster!

This article was originally published on "Old House Chronicles" website in 2000

Copyright ©2000 By Nina Stine


You have to love life in a small town, where the people are friendly, the pace is slow and the competition is fierce. Competition, you say? Oh, yes! If you put up a porch swing you can be sure the neighbor across the street will put up a bigger swing. Plant a new tree, and your neighbor will plant two. I call it the big fish in the little pond syndrome. We all want to be the best. All summer long we trim our hedges, mow our lawns to perfection, and spend hundreds of dollars on flowers. Why do we all put ourselves through this torture? To get the coveted Yard of the Month sign in our front yard and a picture of our home in the local paper. At no time of the year is the competition fiercer than during the holidays, when we all want to win first place in the lighting contest.

After we moved into our home six years ago, our son Eric, who was 16 at the time, said, "I finally have a place to put on a good light show at Christmas." That year Eric planned the display and put up the lights. It dazzled the town, and of course we won first place. Eric, who is a certified "Christmas Junkie," was thrilled. Our son has moved on to college, but the tradition he started still continues.

For those of you seeking to dazzle your own neighborhood during the holiday season, the following tips may be useful. The first thing to do is to plan your display. Our lighting display takes a long time to plan and execute, and starts in October. Yes, October -- no kidding. It is sometimes better to plan your attack on paper. What parts of your house do you want to feature, what kind of lights, and how many? Do you want to show off the house, or is the yard better suited for a display? Do you prefer statues, lawn ornaments, cutouts, or just lights? How much do you have to spend? These are issues better settled before you begin buying and putting up the lights. One approach is to take a black and white picture of your home and then color in areas with different colors. This might seem like overkill, but it beats having to take down a strand of lights when you don't like the color in that area. Everyone has seen the house with a strand chasing on one side, a twinkling one on the other, and a different color on the middle. That is a lack of planning!

The next thing to do is to check your lights. You must remember -- safety first. It is important to plug in all the lights to make sure they work.

Now is the time to look for frayed wire and broken light bulbs. Check your light strands thoroughly before plugging them in and checking to see if they work. If you discover any broken bulbs be sure to unplug the lights before replacing them. If you see any bad wires it is a good idea to replace that strand rather than face a bad shock, or possible fire from an exposed wire. Be sure to have a few packs of lights on hand to replace burned-out or broken bulbs. There is nothing more frustrating than finding a bad bulb and, lacking a replacement, having to stop and run to the store. Also make sure to keep the lights labeled so that you know where they go later. This may seem like a lot of work, but it sure beats hanging out in the cold December wind trying to figure out why that strand of lights isn't working.

We think a display consisting of only lights best suits our home. The house is the showpiece, so we don't want to take away from it by accentuating yard ornaments and freestanding displays. They seem better suited to a more plain home, perhaps to make a subdivision house stand apart from its neighbors. After some experimenting and thought, we decided that the best way to make our house stand out was to frame it with small clear lights.

When the actual work begins, remember to have a sturdy ladder. Make sure you don't try to extend beyond your reach, and be sure to wear shoes with good traction. If you are putting up your lights in a high area, remember to work on a dry day when the wind is still. Better to be safe than to spend your holidays in the emergency room. Another item to take into consideration is extension cords. It takes some planning to route them so they are hidden, and not just a mess of wires running all over. Remember not to connect too many strands together or you will blow the fuses, sometimes ruining the strand if it doesn't have replaceable fuses. The amount allowed to be connected will be marked on the box, and it is wise not to exceed that amount. When we rewired our house, we put plenty of ground-fault receptacles outside, partly with Christmas in mind. We also ran electricity to the garden to run the pumps for the water gardens, so that is another supply point for our power needs.

I wasn't sure how I could accentuate our home's best points, and then I found icicle lights. Our home has a lovely bow front, and icicle lights really show it off. We also run icicle lights along the eaves of our home and it really helps to show off the architecture. To speed up the process of putting up lights, we installed cup hooks along the edge of the bow and under the eaves. That way we don't have to work with a staple gun in one hand, and there are no staples to take out later.

  The year we finished the porch we didn't want to staple our newly stripped and carefully painted posts. We still wanted to install lights on the posts, so the problem was how to keep them up without ruining our paint job. Our solution was to run the lights up one side, pull them through the gingerbread and then down the other side. Keeping them in place was solved by wrapping the poles with ribbons and attaching them with wire ties around the top of the pole.

To install the lights on the windows, the simplest solution for us is to put the lights on the inside of the windows and to keep them in place with suction hooks. This is a good idea because the second story of our home is a long way from the ground, and I, for one, am a big coward and don't like heights at all, so inside they go.

After the house is finished there are the trees, bushes, fences and arbors to decorate. This is usually accomplished fairly quickly since most are closer to the ground. We have a large home and so we want to balance the scene with lights in other areas, but we still want our home to be the showpiece.

Now remember that if you chose to put on a large light display, all these lights need to come down. Be sure to remember where each strand was used and label it accordingly. We find that if we coil the strands as we take them down and put them into individual bags it keeps them in much better shape and there is less untangling to do next Christmas. The bags of strands also need to be stored, and we have found that the plastic storage bins that are sold at the local discount store work well for this.

Are we crazy? Maybe so, and each fall I wonder if we should go through all the work and expense of putting up the display. Then, while I'm finishing raking the leaves, our neighbors will walk by and ask when we are going to start putting up the lights, and they remind me that they bring their grandchildren, sisters, uncles, and cousins twice removed to look at the lights and how much joy it brings. So beware -- if you put up the lights you might well be creating a monster that will grow larger every year.