When it comes to holiday decorations, “less is more” just doesn’t cut it. Nothing illustrates this better than when Charlie Brown tried to put a lone red ball on his paltry tree. Immediate failure. It wasn’t until the tree was bedazzled with bling did it magically come to life. The ante ups every year regarding how much bling is required to stay relevant. Holiday preparation has become so much more than decking the halls with boughs of sharp greenery. Just swing by Hobby Lobby.
The use of light in celebration of Christmas began well before the invention of electricity. To honor Jesus as the “light of world”, candles were attached to evergreen trees. An elder would light them, the entire family would oooh and ahhhh for a few seconds, then they were extinguished. In 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, proposed replacing the risky candle tradition with a string of electric bulbs. President Glover Cleveland further popularized the idea by using lights on the White House tree in 1895. Due mostly to cost and accessibility, it would take until the mid-1950s for the average household to adopt the use of electric lights in holiday decor.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s when Carson Williams, an electrical engineer from Ohio, upped the bling ante even more by affixing an intricate maze of flashing holiday lights to his home, then synchronizing them to music. He became an Internet sensation when a viral video of the light show was featured on NBC’s The Today Show. Thanks to Williams, it’s difficult to hear the Trans-Siberian Orchestra without imagining a bonanza of dancing lights.
In 2010, David Allen Kinder of Dublin, a lifelong lover of Christmas adornment, saw Williams’s famous show. A self-proclaimed “technology guy” he decided such an endeavor was right up his alley. Kinder found a company online that sold everything he needed to launch his own programmed light show. For the music, he purchased a radio transmitter that allowed him to broadcast within a few hundred feet of his house without a license. Spectators could stay in their cars, tune into a certain frequency and be dazzled by the entertainment.
Kinder’s holiday spectacular was locally one-of-a-kind, making the sensation contagious. In 2012, Kinder told The Roanoke Times that sometimes he couldn’t even get to his driveway so he would drive around town until the onlookers cleared out.
It wasn’t long before “DAK Lights” outgrew the neighborhood and needed a new stage. In 2018, the choreographed show moved to Randolph Park in Pulaski, where it lives today. The upgraded show features 20,000 LED lights on a full-sized house façade. As always, it’s free to the public, and an anonymous donor helped offset the cost of the show’s required 100 amps of power – roughly $10,000 worth.
Is such a lavish yuletide display reserved for the likes of electrical engineers? Does it take the specific intelligence of a technology junkie to orchestrate such a spectacular display?
Jeff Gandee, PGA Director of Golf at Auburn Hills Golf Club, says … probably. “We run the software on a laptop inside our home to the controllers on the outside. The technology has made it easier, but I feel the average person would struggle with getting everything in sync with the lights.”
Gandee’s first display around 2006 was simply a few lights around the garage and across the bushes. A small unit played music out loud in front of their Christiansburg house. An eventual noise complaint signaled it was time to change things up. With inspiration from everyone’s favorite misfits, the Griswolds, and a desire to stand out from the rest, he got to work.
Today the Gandee production consists of three controllers with 16 outlets each allowing 48 different strands of lights to move at one time. Everything is numbered and each strand needs to be plugged into the correct slot or the lights won’t flow with the music. Gandee uses 125 extension cords and he, too, acquired a radio transmitter to configure an unused station for the corresponding tunes.
“I am glad my wonderful wife has the patience to configure all the software. If it wasn’t for her, this show would not be happening. I’m the Chevy Chase who hangs up all the lights and I want to keep it that way,” Gandee laughs.
Even though there are numerous online tutorials and DIY support groups to help the layman produce an imaginative, mind-blowing light show, true to the plight of Hollywood’s Clark Griswold, the biggest challenge is still making sure all the lights actually work.
“I get messages, emails and pictures all the time from folks sharing the look of awe from their kids as they’re watching the show. I think holiday lights bring joy in many ways, if nothing more than to just suspend reality and immerse yourself in wonder for a few minutes,” Kinder concludes.
That’s what the essence of the holiday season is all about. The joy doesn’t haven’t to be reserved for inside around the Christmas tree. When the spirit of giving seeps out of doors, windows and rooftops for all to enjoy, it truly is magical spectacle. Even “less is more” Charlie Brown would agree.
Nancy S. Moseley is a writer from Blacksburg whose favorite holiday activity as a child was “Christmas Lighting…” driving around neighborhoods seeking out the coolest displays.