Tacky Light Tour 

Five Billion Watts

Richmond's often cheerless conservatism is easily overthrown — it happens every year, with the city's gloriously immoderate embrace of tacky lights, tacky decorations and the tradition of gawking at tacky homes.

Even those who would never let themselves stray from tasteful-white-lights-and-window-candles decorum secretly thrill to the tackiness of others, and make the rounds. And so our native circumspection is redeemed not only by tackiness but enthusiasm for tackiness as well — the tours, formal and otherwise, that lead seemingly endless streams of pilgrims to homes so festively festooned they defy description.

Take Earl and Rose Phifer's, at 9606 Asbury Court near Regency Square Mall. You can't miss it. Even without the long train of headlights leading off Quioccasin and into their cul-de-sac, the immense nighttime glow above the Phifers' would be sufficient to land a moderately sized blimp in foul weather.

This is Super Bowl halftime-show candlepower, but the lights are only the beginning: more interesting (and tacky) by far are the mind-bendingly myriad and incoherently varied displays, the congregations of cartoon character cutouts, the flocks of gaudy candy canes, the incongruous nativity scenes and, of course, the audacious Team Santa upon the roof.

"Last year was the first year nothing got stolen," says Bobby Phifer, who for the last 18 of his 32 years has been the party most responsible for turning his now-retired parents' home into a living Fantasia (Sister Debbie does the ground-level decorations. You can walk on the driveway and sidewalk, but don't touch.). Today, he's worried about getting the cherry-picker lift truck reserved in time to replace a few of the 50,000 bulbs on the front yard's signature maple (which is entwined with lights year-round). The entire effort takes about 150 man-hours — every one of his weekends from mid-October to opening day on Thanksgiving, plus overtime.

The home's second electrical box (26 breakers, all for the lights, which stay on through New Year's) earns Virginia Power an extra $500 or so each winter. Add $700 to rent the cherry picker and about $300 for spare lights and a few new decorations, and it is clear why the Phifers accept donations, which usually total about half of what they spend: "It's all about the weather (that is, the turnout) and how generous they are," says Rose Phifer.

However, Bobby Phifer, married and living in Highland Springs, wouldn't have stopped doing this even if he didn't have three children — Ryan, 10, Chelsea, 2 and Katelyn, 13-weeks — to impress: "The kids. All the kids in Richmond look forward to it. I can't let them down."

But now that he has his own, "hopefully they'll take this over, and I won't have to mess with it no more," he says. "It's a pain. I wouldn't wish this on anybody."

And inside the house? "We put up a tree," Rose Phifer says. "That's

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