Dreaming of a bright Christmas

Homeowners sacrifice their electric bills - and some would say good taste - for holiday sparkle.

In August, Scott Gluba started planning where in his yard to place the polar bears, the snowman village, the gingerbread people, Big Bird, Donald Duck, and of course, Mr. and Mrs. Claus, not to mention 8,000 to 10,000 Christmas lights.

Now bus tours, limos, and what he estimates are about 10,000 extra cars motor past his Aurora, Colo., front-yard extravaganza. As the tourists gawk at Santa's posterior hanging out of his chimney, Mr. Gluba often stands outside, dressed in his own Santa suit, handing out candy canes.

"It's all worth it when you see a kid smile or even an adult smile and say, 'Look at that,' " says Gluba.

Yes, it's that time of year when homeowners forget about their electric bills, clamber atop their roofs to install reindeer and sleighs, and provide enough candlepower to attract airline pilots.

And the robust economy has given dedicated holiday decorators the cash to let every childhood fantasy about the holiday come to life in sound and lights. These personal Christmas theme parks - like the holiday itself - seem to grow more elaborate every year. In some respects, the $500-a-month electric bills represent Americans' tendency to, if not gild the lily, at least hang little twinkling lights off it.

Newspapers print maps and driving directions so motorists can experience the light shows firsthand. And, now, homeowners are putting their displays on the Web, explaining how to make bears shimmy up electric candy canes or how to slingshot lights over 40-foot firs.

Although no one keeps track of how many Christmas lights are in use around the country, there are enough lights twinkling that at least one state, California, is concerned that they might cause a blackout this winter. The California Independent System Operator, which runs the electric system for about 75 percent of the state, estimates the Christmas lights consume about 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve 1 million homes. To avoid rotating blackouts, the ISO is asking residents not to turn on their holiday lights until after 7 p.m.

On Tuesday, to emphasize California's predicament, Gov. Gray Davis turned on the state's official Christmas tree and then turned it off after 30 minutes. The tree will stay dark as long as the state's shortfall continues.

Californians and others are stringing up more lights, in part because of the strong economy. Just ask the retailers who sell the stuff. At North Pole City in Oklahoma City, sales are on the rise, says owner David Green. "Outdoor decorating becomes larger every year," he says.

Some of the enthusiasts end up buying from Ed's Lighted Yard Art in Llano, Texas. Ed Mosley takes reinforcing bars and bends them into Santas sitting on jet skis, tractors, and even an old Maytag "wringer" washing machine.

"We've shipped to every state in the Union this year," says Mary Ann Mosley.

The Mosleys practice what they sell. Their yard includes a 10-car train (the wheels turn, the engine puffs smoke), a family of deer, and pink flamingos. "We get lots of people every night stopping to take pictures," says Mrs. Mosley.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the lights, especially when they start to attract hundreds of cars. Just ask Jennings Osborne, a Little Rock, Ark., millionaire, who used to decorate his house with 3.2 million red lights. According to the Osborne family Web site, pilots could see the angels and Peace on Earth globe from 80 miles away. They probably could also see the lines of cars waiting to get a look at the display and a candy cane from the Osbornes.

Neighbors complained and in 1993, the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered him to unplug the lights. He tried to get the US Supreme Court to take the case, but was refused. Today, Mr. Osborne's lights sparkle at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and he sponsors light displays at 32 Arkansas cities.

"I get to share my gift with the world," he says on his Web site.

Threats of lawsuits often don't keep homeowners from lighting up the sky.

Last year, the homeowners association in Pecan Grove, Texas, threatened to get an injunction unless one of the residents, Steve Richardson, toned down his theme park. "His house looks like the Chevy Chase movie," says Scott Broussard, a supportive neighbor, referring to "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation," in which Mr. Chase covers his house with so many lights he causes the whole city to black out.

Mr. Broussard says the community asked Mr. Richardson to eliminate the bubble-blowing machine this year. He refused, and bubbles are blowing.

"He loves to have fun," says Broussard, who is also Richardson's lawyer.

But the lights provide more than just fun for Richardson. Last year, he learned one of his neighbors was undergoing treatment for cancer. He knocked on her door to ask if she was bothered by his theme park.

"She said, 'I need your lights to lift my spirit,' " says Broussard. "It became a big motivator for him."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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