No, my house has not been featured on “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” My thousands of lights are neither programmed nor synchronized to holiday music. The International Space Station can’t see my Bainbridge Island, Washington home from orbit.
I am just a guy who every year, for the last 20-plus years, has found the time to squeeze in dozens of hours to brighten our home for the holidays. From climbing ladders and walking on our high-pitched (formerly wood-shake) rooftop, to donning lights, stars and a blazingly bright cross made by our then 8-year old son and his granddad, to blanketing our front yard with classic cartoon character blow molds, animated blow ups, rope lighted deer and tens of thousands of LED lights.
Christmastime for me means it’s time shine a lot of light to make the season bright – literally. Where I live, I have one of the most decked out homes that, for many on the Island, has become an annual drive-by tradition. In fact, I can’t go anywhere this time of year without bumping into someone I know asking me, “Are your lights up yet?” This routine starts the day after Thanksgiving and does not end until I post a video of the completed project on Facebook.
This year, I am running way behind. WAV Group’s success has yielded the busiest November and December on record for me. I have traveled to three different states so far. Good for business, bad for having any extra time to hang lights. Now when I am about to be asked, “Are your…” I interrupt and say, “Ask me in about a week,” as I know the question that’s coming. I even hired a bunch of students from the robotics team at the high school I mentor last weekend to help out. We only made a dent after working a half-day in the pouring Seattle rain. Oh, the challenges of decorating in December in the Pacific Northwest!
Why do I do it?
When our two boys were little, no one ever asked me why I put up such an elaborate holiday display each year. I guess the assumption was that I did it for our boys. That was true and still is to a degree, even though both are in college. They still love the lights. My oldest spent last Sunday helping me catch up, as he did the weekend before helping out with the robotics students. But he does it as much for me as anything else. He knows how much I love it.
And I really love doing it. Even with all the aches and pains, this old body gets from going up and down a ladder 400 times or 13,477 steps this past Sunday.
It’s my thing. I guess everybody has a thing. Or at least should. Christmas decorations? To me, there’s something magical about them. Every time I see something new and interesting, it stops me in my tracks. Let me explain.
As a kid, I grew up in Chicago. Every year, I prayed for Christmas snow. When it happened, there was nothing more majestic. It made Christmas, Christmas. But when I was 11, we moved to South Florida. No snow. Okay, frost one year, on the cars, and I was able to scrape together a pseudo snowball. And hit my brother in the back with it. But that wasn’t snow.
So the way you compensated when you had palm trees, a sandy front yard and 80 degrees on Dec. 25th was to decorate outside. With lights, and blow molds, and more lights. Entire neighborhoods that COULD be seen from the Space Station were not uncommon in South Florida. Christmas spirit was manifested in decorations. It made up for a lack of snow – heck, a lack of cold!
More than just decorations
But outdoor decor did something else I will never forget. It brought our family together at Christmas time for that car ride to see the lights. Have you ever done that? Driven around neighborhoods to see the lights? What was your reaction when you saw an awesome house all lit up?
To me, that car ride was THE best. I will never forget the biggest display in Hollywood, Florida in the late 1960s. It was at a Funeral home, of all places. It featured all these different Christmases, synchronized before anyone else was thinking of using computers to control lights – it was so awesome.
But it was when we drove an ordinary well-decorated house that my heart really lit up. It filled me with joy – and it still does. Today, I have an extra appreciation for the effort that goes into it. And what I most appreciation really isn’t the super polished fully computerized displays. I like the ones that look like real people and not like a team of engineers did them.
To me, this is the difference between doing lights for one’s self, or for someone else. It’s why I get a little offended when someone calls me “Clark.” It’s why I will never go overboard and create a synchronized display, or buy enough lights to compete on a TV show. It would feel like the lights would be about me.
I never did the lights for me, even though it is my thing. I did it for the reaction I know it can bring to others. I am not sure if this makes sense, but it’s how I feel.
When I drive through a neighborhood with our boys to see the lights, I enjoy and appreciate every single effort, no matter how big or small. So even if you put up a single strand in a cul-de-sac where all the houses are fully decorated, to me, it says you are participating with your neighbors, and that shows you have holiday spirit. I celebrate you and thank you for making an effort – any effort. And if you go all out, well, I’m in awe. I appreciate your lights and you need to know the joy it brings my family and me.
When it really hit home
So now that the boys are in college, my wife asked me the other night how long I was going to keep putting up the decorations. Immediately, I thought about the “whys.”
A top Realtor on the Island told me a couple of years ago that her daughter “grew up” driving by our house every Christmas to enjoy the lights. Even though she’s graduated from college, she still asked her mom if we were still putting up our lights, and if so, could they drive by Christmas Eve. She said it’s one of her favorite things to do at Christmas.
I spoke at the local high school several years ago to an economics class. I was explaining how the value of our home doubled after about 10 years. I told the class, “You might know my house. It’s just down the street in Commodore West. I do the big Christmas light display.” The class erupted with a huge applause. I was shocked at their impromptu reaction, until I realized these were all juniors and seniors who grew up coming by our house.
For years, we had a home-based Day Car in our cul-de-sac. After their annual holiday party, kids would come up and walk around the yard to see all the lights up close. I would come out to watch those tiny faces lit up like sunbeams and their eye would open wide. Then they saw me, they would say the sweetest ‘Thank yous.’
Last year, we were out of town, but I had hooked up all the lights to run on new WiFi timers so I could monitor remotely. Everything worked great, as each year, we have hundreds of cars that drive by our house and I didn’t want to let anyone down. Someone emailed me a Dec. 23rd article from the local daily newspaper, the Kitsap Sun. It was about a bus tour that was being given for Bainbridge Seniors on the island of the different neighborhood light displays. The photo had the bus parked in front of our house and the article described the reaction of two Seniors who were looking at my display. One exclaimed, “Oh, this is lovely!” Another one said, “Oh, beautiful.” And finally, the paper quoted another saying, “That was the best I’ve ever seen. And I’m pretty old!”
And when I read that last line, it reaffirmed exactly why I still do my lights and why it’s my “thing.”
It brings joy to a lot of people, children young and old. When you can do something that brings that kind of delight to someone, well, you just keep on doing it.
Video clip: Here’s one of my favorite years, 2011, and the music is by my brother, Ed Hawkins, who once sang opera in Ft. Lauderdale.