Four storage rooms. Six weeks of labor. Twenty-seven inflatables. A $400 power bill.
That’s just some of what you need to get the kind of holiday light display that’ll have the neighbors gaping in admiration and carloads of local tourists making pilgrimages to your house. It’ll take you weeks of set-up and weeks of tear-down, nightly maintenance and many post-Christmas shopping trips. But for two South Sound couples, turning their property into a miniversion of the Spanaway Holiday Lights is definitely worth all the effort.
Here’s the tale of two holiday houses, each with a slightly different approach to lighting up the night. Both displays are up through the end of December.
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1814 COMMERCIAL ST., STEILACOOM
When Beau and Dineke Beauchamp began decorating their Steilacoom house 15 years ago, they just had a few strands of lights. They probably didn’t expect to become the family that augmented the town’s annual light-up on the first Friday of December, or the judges in the town’s holiday light competition, or the kind of folks who spend hours fixing broken lights like Santa’s elves.
But 10 years of not going on vacation saw more and more strands added to their collection, and this year it’s the biggest ever: The terraced front yard has bushes, retaining walls and gables lit to the nines, a giant cross on the flagpole and a herd of deer; around the side are illuminated life-size nutcrackers, candy canes, “noels” and a Nativity family. There’s enough wattage to be seen from the Narrows bridges and Anderson Island, if you know where to look.
This year, half the deer will even be on the property across the street.
“We try to change it round every year,” says Dineke, who’s the chief laborer for the set-up. “We get a lot of compliments.”
The retired couple light up their display at the corner of Balch and Commercial Streets to time with Steilacoom’s town-lighting night, and they’re the envy of the neighborhood.
But it comes at the price of much hard work.
“We start before Halloween,” Dineke explains, adding that this year it’s been extra work fixing things knocked down by the wind and rain. After every Christmas they shop the sales for more, and spend hours fixing broken lights with special tools. They even take in broken-light donations from neighbors.
“I enjoy doing it,” says Dineke, “but it’s tedious, time-consuming, (you need) patience.”
One thing that’s gotten easier in recent years is the power bill: A few years ago they switched to LED and mini-lights, which cut the cost considerably. The Beauchamps store their lights in a dozen tubs in the basement, and five more ice chests in the garage, along with the dozen deer and other figures and signs, some hand-made.
For the Steilacoom couple, though, it’s all worth it.
“Once we get it up it’s just so nice, and makes everyone happy,” says Dineke.
9252 EVERGREEN VALLEY ROAD SE, OLYMPIA
For Jim and Judy Southwell, a $400 electric bill and a stolen Santa are a small price to pay for a lights display that attracts tourists by the carload. With around 100,000 lights, the Southwells’ Thurston County home is hard to make out behind the garlands of red, green and white lights that dot their bushes, trees and gables. Deer prance, the flagpole is turned into a Christmas tree twice the height of the house, and 27 illuminated inflatables populate the yard.
“Everybody says I’m nuts,” admits Jim cheerfully. “But I still do it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Beginning three weeks before Thanksgiving, the Southwells – also retired – take an organized approach to a display that stays more or less the same each year. Every bush has its own number and labeled storage tub, and Jim has made notched plywood supports to stop lights getting tangled inside. He patrols the display nightly to look out for broken lights that need replacing, and has already thrown away over a thousand this year alone. The flagpole is telescopic, allowing easy assembly of the strands of green lights to make it look like a Christmas tree.
And taking it down is just as big a job: With a loft and two separate shop spaces, the couple has room not just to store but to reinflate the 27 inflatable figures and dry them out for a week after their stint in the December weather.
“It’s a real job,” says Jim. “They get so sopping wet.”
None of the lights are LED – Jim doesn’t like the harsh look of the light – and so the cost is high, an extra $400 tagged on to the power bill. They’ve even had a theft: a twelve-foot brand-new Santa, stolen last year. Jim put a sign up asking for his Santa back, and the neighbors even suggested putting in donations to buy a replacement, which his son finally bought.
But it’s worth it.
“The neighbors love it,” Jim says, adding that they always see hordes of car-tourists come specially to see the display. “One year we went to my wife’s family in Arizona and everyone was really disappointed. And I really enjoy doing it. I just wish you could buy lights that last longer. Every night half a bush goes out and I have to grab another set.”
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org/arts