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Secrets of a Pro: How to Create a Dazzling Christmas Light Display

We love over-the-top Christmas light displays. So we asked one hard-working holiday light hanger to share the secrets of his 400,000-light display in Delaware.

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Smith Christmas lights in Delaware

All photos in this blog post by Chris Thompson, photographer.

If you’ve got deep pockets and time on your hands, you can turn your ho-hum Christmas lights display into a dazzler with only 400,000 bulbs, 70 extra circuits, and hundreds of hours of planning and hanging.

As we promised in yesterday’s post about the cost of holiday lights we’ve got an inside peek into what it takes to create those dazzling light shows from the Smith family of North Wilmington, Del., to mount its annual Christmas lights show, which has delighted neighbors near and far for more than 25 years.

Brothers Tom and Jim Smith are the money behind the extravaganza, which runs through Dec. 23 on 1900 Prior Road in Wilmington. But brother-in-law Ralph Thompson, 54, is the brains and muscle that plans and puts up the display, working weekends and evenings from Labor Day until Thanksgiving.

Thompson recently told HouseLogic the secrets to mounting a holiday display that makes the news, and neighbors will remember all year long.

Smith Christmas lights in Delaware
Click the photo above for a larger view of the 2012 Smith Christmas display.

Houselogic: With so many lights and blowups and figures, how do you know where to put what?

Ralph Thompson: You learn from experience. I like to mix bulbs together — the old with the new; the LEDs with the incandescent light bulbs. The house is trimmed in big bulbs, and I use the small bulbs as icicles. My top tip for novices is: If you need 150 feet of lights, buy 200. It’s always good to have spares, because sometimes you can’t find a match later.

Smith Christmas lights in Delaware

HL: How do you power up a display with 400,000 lights?

RT: We have two separate meters just to run the Christmas display. All together we have 70 circuits. We check the circuits with an amp meter to make sure we’re not overloading them.

HL: How many extension cords do you use?

RT: About 300 short ones, because we’ve buried most of our circuits underground. We use green and brown cords so you can’t really see them.

Smith Christmas lights in Delaware

HL: Is more always better when it comes to Christmas light displays?

RT: People don’t realize that with a large display, you’ve got to add circuits, which means calling an electrician, and that gets expensive. A home owner can have a beautiful yard with just a half-dozen figures.

HL: Hanging lights can be dangerous. Have you ever gotten hurt?

RT: I’ve cut my fingers on broken lights, but I haven’t fallen off a ladder. If there’s ice or snow on the roof, we don’t go up.

HL: What’s the best way to attach lights to your house?

RT: Mostly I use plastic shingle and gutter clips. I’ve got some permanently mounted clips on eaves, but every few years I replace them because the sun eats the plastic.

Smith Christmas lights in Delaware

HL: What’s your least favorite part of mounting the display?

RT: Going through every string of lights to replace every bulb that doesn’t work — that’s the most tedious. You spend hours of maintenance on a large display. The average person would be overwhelmed; I’m overwhelmed at times.

HL: Is there a friendly competition between your display and the Fauchers’ light show, also in Delaware?

RT: He claims he has more lights, but I don’t feel we’re in competition. More power to him. I know what it takes to do what I do.

HL: Why do you spend so much time and effort on this display?

RT: Years ago I had a personal thing happen in my life — a perforated ulcer. When I recovered, I was looking for a purpose. This is my purpose, to make people happy. I love to see the joy and smiles on faces of the young, and the young at heart.

Show off your home’s holiday lights or join the discussion about holiday lights.

Visitors checking out the Smith Christmas lights in Delaware

lisa-kaplan-gordon Lisa Kaplan Gordon

is an avid gardener, a member of the Fairfax County Master Gardeners Association, and a builder of luxury homes in McLean, Va. She’s been a Homes editor for Gannett News Service and has reviewed home improvement products for AOL. Follow Lisa on Google+.

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