December 18, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


Highly Illuminated 

The meaning of Christmas lights.

"I kind of feel like an artist," Hudak says with obvious satisfaction, surveying his yard, his house, his trees, all of them festooned with Christmas lights, lighted plastic Santas and plywood structures. "But I use a different palette and a different medium."

Hudak, a former disc jockey with Lite-98 radio, performs his artistry in broad strokes. Not for him the prim New England-style candles extolled by Martha Stewart and her ilk.

No, for Hudak and people like him it's all or nothing. It's all about the big gesture.

How big? Well, Hudak guesses he has about 43,000 lights and four miles of electrical wiring. He spends 50 to 60 hours every year planning the design, layout and electrical usage. He starts checking the lights in October with a contraption he made out of a 9-volt battery — after 13 years of this, he can check 800 bulbs an hour, he says.

To greet visitors, he wears a homemade, fully lighted, battery-powered suit. He keeps a tiny radio transmitter in a downstairs closet to broadcast Christmas carols for a few dozen yards around his house.

"You know," he offers, "it takes eight hours just to plug everything in."

As reward for all this dedication, his modest home in a cul-de-sac in a housing development called Thousand Oaks is visited by thousands of people every year. Limousines line up outside his doors. Dozens of tour buses pull up, all packed. People wander his street like sleepwalkers, eyes wide, mouths agape, faces aglow in a nimbus of colored lights.

Not that Hudak does this just for the glory. He solicits donations to the Virginia Home for Boys from visitors to his illuminated house; so far, he says, he's raised and donated through the years more than $35,000. "I'm not in this to be competitive," he adds. "I'm doing this to give something back. I've had some good luck. God's been good to me for a lot of years."

Last year, Hudak estimates, 23,000 people visited his house during the holidays.

"It's getting scary," he says.

What's that about? Let us investigate.

It will come as no surprise that Hudak's house is not unique in Richmond. These days, just about every neighborhood has a house that, for a few months a year, turns into a miniature Christmas theme park.

This has not gone unnoticed.

Some people like it.

"It's an artistic expression," says Roddy Moore, a folk-art expert and director of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum at Ferrum College, in Southwest Virginia. "Their yard is their palette and their house is their paint. I think it's wonderful. … Why are people doing this? Maybe people are tired of just being mediocre."

Some people don't.

"Less is more," says Todd Yoggy, of Yoggy Crow, interior-design guru to the Richmond elite. "Christmas to me has always been about fresh greens, maybe simple candles in the windows. Twinkle lights and things like that? If you want Disney Wonderland World or whatever, go to Florida."

Yoggy composes himself. "There's nothing wrong with it," he says, diplomatically. "It can be fun and playful and a reflection of who you are."

Barely taking a breath, though, he goes on: "But it just gets a little ridiculous. If I was living next to a house encrusted with lights, I would wonder: How do you sleep at night with all that light coming in? It's so American, isn't it? It's such a competition. Who's got the biggest boat, the biggest cars, the most lights? It's so commercial. Sell, sell, sell! More, more, more! I just don't agree with that."


Apparently, there is more to this than Christmas lights.

Christmas lights are not new — they date back 120 years. But the Big Illuminated Look is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the '40s and '50s, says Moore, the folklorist, the most a house would be decorated would be with a nativity scene or a tree with a small spotlight pointing at it.

Christmas lights were the province of the towns, not of individuals' homes — Main Streets would be garlanded with strings of lights.

Then Christmas lights got cheaper, and maybe people got a little less attached to their hometowns. In the 1960s, people got a little bolder as they decorated their houses, stringing those little lights along their rooflines. The home-décor phenomenon had begun.

Then the energy crisis of the 1970s put a halt to all that.

Moore remembers driving from Williamsburg to Norfolk during Christmastime in the midst of the crisis and coming upon a sprawling housing development. No Christmas lights were to be seen. Well, there was one set: On the roof of one house, a homeowner had spelled out in lights the word "humbug."

(Hudak remembers those dark nights too. "When I first came to Richmond — what? Twenty-seven years ago? — it was like nothing. There was something missing. Those night lights in the window — they didn't really do much for me. … It was like the town that forgot Christmas.")

When the energy crisis ebbed, though, it was as if some long-pent-up passion for lighting surged forth.

"After that shortage," Moore says, "it seemed like the lights came back with a passion."

Inspired, Kmart and Wal-Mart and the other stores started selling more and more lawn decorations — plastic snowmen, twinkle lights, reindeer, Disney characters. And the Santas! Dancing Santas, climbing Santas, inflatable Santas.

Not too many nativity scenes, though, curiously enough. This was the period when our Christmas became thoroughly secularized.

So Christmas lights are about — what? The secularization of America? The disappearance of small-town life?


Or maybe … money.

Not many people talk about it ("Let's not go there," says Moore, before doing just that), but how illuminated you like your house is one of those markers along the well-understood fault line that divides Marthas from Bubbas, the high society from the hoi polloi. Or, maybe, the snobs from the regular people.

The upper-income set, Moore says, historically has preferred the Williamsburg look. A white candle in the window. A simple wreath on the door.

You used to find your big plastic Santas, meanwhile, only in the sort of neighborhood usually described as working class.

But that's changing. Like other cultural signifiers — golf, "Friends," Martha Stewart herself — styles of Christmas decorations have moved from one social class to another. Increasingly, you find highly illuminated homes in more expensive neighborhoods.

Yoggy has noticed some of the "gorgeous" houses on Monument Avenue becoming encrusted in lights, and it worries him.

"It's sort of scary, you know," he says. "It's got me thinking: What if it spreads? What if it goes from one house to the next, and everything gets more lights, and Monument Avenue becomes the street of a million lights?"

This, clearly, is to Yoggy the stuff of nightmares.

So what do people get from such illumination?

We will see. But first let us visit the holiday lights of yore.

Once, any Christmas illumination was done with candles. Therefore, because people are inclined to avoid house fires, Christmas lights were kept on only for brief periods and tended to be modest.

But then came Edward Johnson. In Christmas 1882, just three years after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, Johnson, a business associate of Edison's, stunned his hometown of New York.

Here, as recorded by, a Web site run by one William G. Nelson, is a contemporary account from a newspaper journalist named Croffut:

"There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. … The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white, blue, white, red, blue — all evening."

But the first Big Illumination of all time did not stop there, as Croffut reports: "The ceiling was crossed obliquely with two wires on which hung 28 more of the tiny lights; and all the lights and the fantastic tree itself with its starry fruit were kept going by the slight electric current brought from the main office on a filmy wire."

By the way, history does not record if anyone called Johnson's tree "tacky."

Maybe it's about capitalism.

The commerce can be direct — some enterprising children in the neighborhoods of popular houses sell hot cider to gawkers. Some people, like Hudak, use the lights to raise money for charity or the guy dressed as Santa who poses for Polaroids for a $1 donation. Of course, retailers get into the act — Christmas lawn ornaments choke the superstores every year.

Then there are the spinoff industries. For these we must tip the hat to Barry Gottlieb, better known as Mad Dog, who in 1986 rented a van and set up the very first Richmond Tacky Lights Tour. It sold out, as did the next year's, and the next. Winners of Gottlieb's first-, second- and third-place Tacky Lights trophies still prize them. (Gottlieb moved to San Francisco in 1996. He is remembered in local Christmas-lights circles as a visionary.)

Following Gottlieb's lead, limousine and tour-bus companies have mined the financial potential of running the tours. At least two dozen limo companies around Richmond now offer them — the going rate is several hundred dollars for a circuit lasting a couple of hours.

Business is great, says Kurt Spessard, driver and corporate-sales representative for James Limousine in Richmond. His company had 140 Christmas-house tours available a few weeks ago; he's almost sold out.

Spessard's explanation for the lights is this: "My thing is, everybody has their thing, and this is just their thing. Some people just really get taken by the spirit of the season."

And Spessard? He concedes that, after a stint as a house-tour professional, the novelty fades.

"Usually by about day three the excitement of seeing the lights wears off," he says. "But then you see the looks on the little kids' faces, the way their eyes get real big when they see all the lights — it's just great."

Janet Morris echoes this sentiment. Money, she says, is not what drives her to make her house so festive. "It's satisfaction," she says, "that other people enjoy the same thing I do."

Morris' addiction to decorations began in 1993, the first year she bought her house in North Side after living for 16 years cooped up in an apartment. "It started out small," Morris says. "I got me a Santa Claus and a snowman. Then I got a few lights. Then I got some more."

A brisk fall wind is blowing, and it repeatedly knocks a chest-high Santa Claus into the grass. Morris' 6-year-old grandson, Bubba, cheerfully sets him up again.

After that first year, it was Katie bar the door. Now a squadron of inflatable Santas marches across Morris' tiny front lawn. Her house is draped with holiday-appropriate decorations. The screened front porch strains to contain all the figurines, artificial greenery and, of course, lights.

"I've always liked lights, ever since I was growing up," Morris says. "It's like people put them up so other people, not just them, can enjoy them."

Not everyone does, as Morris freely concedes. "There's a few people who get annoyed," she says. "I've had my lights cut probably three times — the wiring cut. But most say they enjoy them. They say, 'Can you turn the lights on so my kids can see?'"

Bubba looks up, grinning, eyes bright. "It looks great, don't it?" he says.

So maybe it's about children.

We have one more stop. It's here, on the 2100 block of Rosewood Avenue, in a neighborhood tucked between Byrd Park and the Downtown Expressway. See that ladder leaning up against the porch? That's Keith Mealy up there, putting the final touches on the lights, as he does every year.

That's not his house, though. It belongs to Lawrence and Virginia Johnson, a pleasant couple in their 70s who have been married for 53 years.

Ten years ago, their son, Lawrence Jr., heard his mother say she wanted Christmas lights. "My son said, 'You all want lights? I'm going to see that you get lights,'" Virginia Johnson recalls. "He ran them up to the top of the house and all the way to the back."

And so the lights were switched on at the Johnsons'. So were the dancing Santas and the 4-foot-tall wise men flanking the front door and the Mickey and the Minnie Mouse. Among others.

The next year, Lawrence Jr.'s friend Keith Mealy helped put the lights up. Mealy had been decorating his mother's house, so he figured he'd pitch in at the Johnsons'. He just kept helping every year after.

In 1994, the Johnsons won first prize in the Tacky Lights Tour, much to the family's surprise. "We'd never heard of any contest," Lawrence Johnson Sr. says. That brought the Johnsons' house some measure of fame. "You wouldn't believe the people out here — good gracious!" Virginia Johnson says.

The attention has continued, to the Johnsons' delight.

"We're just people people," Virginia Johnson says. "The old people and the children really enjoy it, and we are glad to do it for them."

"Kids say, 'Is this Santa Claus' house?'" says Lawrence Sr.

Five years ago, Lawrence Jr. found out he was dying of lung cancer. He was 44.

As he sickened and the holidays began approaching, his parents started talking about whether they had the energy to do the lights that year.

"He said, 'You have to put the lights up,'" Virginia Johnson says. "He said, 'Do it for me.' He told us to always do it in his memory as long as we could."

Mealy came over to help. The house was decorated, and won a prize — third place — in the Tacky Lights contest.

Lawrence Johnson Jr. died on Dec. 2, 1997, six months after his diagnosis.

"He was real sick those last months," his mother says. "He didn't shed any tears, though."

Now, without the lights the season would be unbearable, says Lawrence Johnson Sr. "It gets depressing for old people sometimes in the holidays," he says. "This gives you something to look forward to — children coming and looking, people saying hello. Golly Moses, I had people here on Thanksgiving night. You wouldn't believe it! A carload of people came by before we turned the lights on and knocked on the door and asked us to switch them on so the children could see. Of course, we did."

Outside in the dark, Keith Mealy is working on the decorations. "Santa went down," he explains, climbing off the ladder. "It's right windy."

The house is now up to 80,000 lights, Mealy says — white ones, icicle ones, string ones. He's been working a couple of hours a day on the house, starting in September when the weather was warmer and the days lasted longer. He comes over after his work as a landscaper.

He says he's been helping at the Johnsons' house at Lawrence Jr.'s request. "He told me he wanted me to carry it on," Mealy says. "So I've been doing it ever since."

Every year he adds a little more. During tour season, Mealy has to be ready to come over whenever a string of lights burns out or a Santa suffers some catastrophe. Fortunately, he lives just a few blocks away.

A car pulls up at the corner. "It looks very nice," the woman in the driver's seat says through the open window. A girl in the passenger seat calls out, "It looks great!"

"Thank you," Mealy says. He looks at the house again. "People tell me they love it. I get the greatest compliments in the world. I can sit back and admire it myself and say, 'I love it. That's something I did.' That's the greatest payday I could have."

Another car pulls to the curb alongside the house. Two girls sit inside. They nod to Mealy, who politely nods back. The girls gaze wide-eyed at the house. A constellation of Christmas lights is reflected on their windshield and on their faces.

Mealy and the girls stay there for a long time in silence, watching the lights. The little house glows in the dark like a beacon. Like a star. S



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