Secrets of Those Outrageous Holiday Light Shows

The inside scoop on what it takes to make a holiday light show go viral.

Brightly colored Christmas light display outside a home
Image: Rob Lewine/Getty

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.

For more than 30 years, brothers Tom and Jim Smith have dazzled their neighbors (and the nation via social media) with their home's annual Christmas lights show at 1900 Prior Road in Wilmington, Del. 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.

Making A Christmas Lights Extravaganza

Thompson talked with HouseLogic about the secrets to mounting a holiday display that makes the news year after year.

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
Image: Chris Thompson, photographer/Smith home, Wilmington, DE

Related: LED Holiday Lights: 6 Need-to-Know Tips

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
Image: Chris Thompson, photographer/Smith home, Wilmington, DE

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 homeowner 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.

Related: Holiday Lighting Safety Checklist

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
Image: Chris Thompson, photographer/Smith home, Wilmington, DE

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.

Smith Christmas lights in Delaware
Image: Chris Thompson, photographer/Smith home, Wilmington, DE

Related: 7 Tips for a Perfect Holiday Home for Not-So-Perfect People

Housing And Real Estate Expert Lisa Kaplan-Gordon
Lisa Kaplan Gordon

Lisa Kaplan Gordon is an award-winning, Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer who contributes to real estate and home improvement sites. In her spare time (yeah, right!), she gardens, manages three dogs, and plots to get her 21-year-old out of her basement.