Deck the Place! Quirky Lights Abound

It's as if every tree-light maker has an Andy Warhol in charge of design

FINDING the Spadaforas' home this Christmas won't be a problem, especially at night.

Hundreds of large white bulbs dangle from the front-porch of their two-story gingerbread house in Malden, Mass. More white lights cascade from the maple tree and twinkle from the junipers and rhododendrons.

"My son does it," says owner Francine Spadafora, shivering at her front door as two plastic elves look on. "We haven't gotten the power bill yet, but we do this every year and it's worth it."

Millions of Americans like the Spadaforas are decking their halls and just about everything else with lights. More bulbs than ever are being used, and not just the standard ones that have bedecked trees and terraces for generations. Pushed by new technology and changing consumer tastes, holiday illuminations are undergoing some of the biggest changes since Edison.

The holiday light market has exploded in the past few years, says Anne Koehler of Bronner's Christmas Wonderland in Frankenmuth, Mich.

"People are putting up more lights than before. It used to be two or three strands on the tree; now it's 20."

The classic $3.99 set of 50 white bulbs still ranks as an industry bestseller. But many Americans are taking the Christmas trees of their forefathers and giving them a more hip look. In some cases, the result looks a lot less like Christmas.

Today's lights now come in a dazzling array of forms, from the novel to the bizarre. A Southwest aficionado can pay $20 for chili-pepper or Virgin Mary lights; animal lovers may prefer a set of Holstein cows, salamanders, or tiger-striped cats.

It's as if every firm that made tree lights had an Andy Warhol in charge of research and development. No company can afford to fall behind the fashion curve, even if that means 100 glowing Hershey's Kisses.

"We sell these lights year-round," says Melissa Rivkin, a merchandiser at the trendy Urban Outfitters in Boston, pointing to a rack of plastic moons and sunflowers. "It's a generation X thing. Kids don't use them so much for trees, really. They hang them over their windows or brighten up their dorm rooms."

Part of this change may be attributed to the same technological advances that brought transistor radios and personal computers. The 1950s gave us cool-to-the-touch midget bulbs that were less fire hazardous. The '60s brought "chaser" bulbs that flash in sequence, and the '80s produced lights that brighten or dim by remote control.

More recently, semiconductor chips have been added to make lights twinkle to the beat of Christmas carols. You can even get a fiber-optic tree that emits light from its needle tips.

Some people get more carried away with creativity than others. Take Jennings Osborne. The Little Rock, Ark., native used 3.2 million lights in a Christmas display on his property. A lawsuit by neighbors forced him to tone it down - to 12,000 lights.

In this $339 million business, holiday bulbmakers are competing to come up with tomorrow's hot new bulbs. Some find ideas as close as their mail box.

"We get a lot of feedback from our customers," says Louis Winokur, product manager at Minami International, a lighting company in Yonkers, N.Y. "Sometimes we get letters asking 'Why can't you make different colors, like purple or teal?' "

At customers' suggestions, the company has put out lights in the shape of M&M candies, or the red, white, and green colors intended to match the Italian flag.

Others emphasize quality over cleverness. "There's nothing worse than putting up a string of lights on the tree and taking it back down because it doesn't work," says Jay Pomeroy, a spokesman for General Electric Lighting in Cleveland.

"The hottest trend is ease of decorating," he adds. People prefer to put up one strand of 100 bulbs rather than two strands of 50.

Not all the strings are coming from the United States. The Minamis and GEs are seeing increased competition from low-cost companies in China.

For those who want to peek at the best-dressed trees of tomorrow, the National Ornament and Electric Light Christmas Association (NOEL) holds its equivalent of the Paris Air Show. Every February in New York City, representatives from NOEL's 50 manufacturers and retailers gather to hawk their wares and survey the competition.

Companies like Minami are tight-lipped about their up-and-coming product lines. "We were the first company to come up with a chaser set," Winokur says.

"Within a few years, someone came along, figured out how it worked, and produced a knock-off," he says. "It's hard to get a patent for this sort of thing."

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