All of the Lights
For the Thompsons, stringing lights is an obsession.
By Rachel Williams
Esther Thompson remembers stepping out of a limousine and glancing up at her dimly lit home.
There was a solitary wreath hanging on the door and iridescent plug-in candles lining the windows but little else. After taking a tacky lights tour in 1999, she was moved to action. Without hesitation, she told her husband they at least needed red-and-green lights webbed across the bushes.
The couple met beneath a glittering disco ball. The Christmas of 1999 rekindled a flare of creativity and flashing lights. These days, their grand illumination begins after dusk on Thanksgiving. Thousands of lightbulbs string their house for 40 days and nights until New Year’s Eve.
“To buy 170,000 lights costs money. It’s the same as the guy buying the boat. It’s the same for people who travel. It’s the same for any hobby,” Al says. “A guy goes out on a $100,000 boat to the Chesapeake Bay, and I do Christmas lights.”
This year, Al built 87 additional homemade decorations from plywood, wire and PVC pipe. Their display is altered every year by adding small, accentuating pieces. The layout of candles and 10-foot-displays stay relatively the same. Last season’s electric bill was $1,200.
Al worked 70 to 80 hours per week prior to retirement, so he wasn’t much for holiday cheer. He detested the strain of untangling lights from shapely festive ornaments. But to make Esther happy, he kept untangling. Over the years, the Thompsons added reindeer and spiraling green Christmas trees.
Joe Niamtu, a plastic surgeon whose house is pinned on Richmond’s holiday radar, said if his wife April had her way, their house would resemble Times Square. It’s an outward expression of holiday cheer for them. The Niamtus have a couple of miles of lights at 10230 Cherokee Road and expect to blow their circuit breakers yearly. April has seven Christmas trees illuminating several rooms of the house. One stands 12 feet tall.
“It’s the Botox of Christmas,” Joe says, jokingly. “No, as much as I would like to define something, it’s about the cheer and holiday spirit.”
During the summer of 2004, Al built his first snowman family out of plywood. He recycled scrap material from Lowe’s and The Home Depot. As the holiday season neared, Al prepared roughly 30 more decorative signs with vibrant splashes of paint.
“If everybody interacted with each other like they do the week before Christmas and the week after, we would have a better world,” Joe says. “Everyone plays extra nice and friendly.”
Al finds inspiration all around him.
“I’m not an artist but a copier,” Al says. “I get my ideas from the Internet and look at different company styles. While wandering the department store, I take note of Christmas displays and decorations on sale. If I walk by the gift-bag aisle and see a design I like, I will snap a photo. From there, I will make a pattern before constructing each piece.”
The Thompsons also get ideas from other participants on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Tacky Lights Tour. After gaining recognition on the tour, their home is now one of the top stops.
“It’s really neat to go out in front of your house and talk to people every night from all over the world. People have signed our guestbook from all 50 states and 123 foreign countries,” Al says. “I’ll be standing there talking to someone from Egypt. I’ll turn around to talk to somebody else from Australia. Then I’ll talk to somebody else from Japan and Ukraine – all in one night.”
For Al and Esther, it’s more than decorations and holiday cheer. They memorialize fallen military soldiers with hand-carved yellow ribbons. There’s an arch resting against their house for Marine Staff Sgt. Donald May Jr., who was the first Virginia soldier killed in Iraq. The installation was dedicated after meeting his mother one year at their holiday display.
For a neighborhood girl who died after a truck backed over her in 2005, the couple nestles a bear gripping late Annabelle’s angel among the lights.
“Being her mom, it’s really special,” says Meredyth Bryant. “People definitely recognize the logo and the name. Hopefully it’s bringing continual awareness to preventing back-over accidents. She would probably be happy that it makes us happy. And that we can go, remember and see it every year.”