Hanging Christmas lights is a demanding process for most decorators. Carrying boxes of lights out of storage can take time, untangling endless wires can take patience and paying the electric bill can take a few extra dollars.

But for those in South Jersey who transform their front yards into full-blown holiday spectacles, it also takes something else.

“You’ve got to have a little bit of madness,” said Anthony Gerrish, of Absecon. “If you don’t have that and you’re always worried about what people are going to think, then you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Gerrish, 30, and his brother Daniel Miller, 23, call their display of more than 10,000 lights at their childhood home on Curan Avenue “Yard’s Family Christmas” after their grandparents.

Trees wrapped in bright white lights and blinking snowflakes have a kaleidoscope effect at first. But visitors can soon spot familiar characters in the display, from the toothy grin of the abominable snowman to Darth Vader gripping a glowing red lightsaber in one hand and a present in the other.

Families who visit follow the sound of Christmas music broadcast from a radio channel Gerrish had set up himself as they rush through the lawn’s illuminated walkway — a new feature Gerrish added to accommodate the growing crowds and their desire to get as close to the lights as possible.

All of the lights run from a generator and a power grid the brothers created from their own cables and electrical outlets.

While Gerrish may call it madness, Tony Wright, who has maintained a display on Ridge Avenue in Egg Harbor Township for the past 10 years, said he prefers the term “Christmas addict” to describe efforts like his.

“I wouldn’t say ‘crazy,’ but I would say it’s an art,” Wright said.

Whether its stringing together countless shimmering icicles, stapling a rainbow of lights across every inch of his roof or shining a green spotlight onto a 23-foot tall inflatable snowman, Wright sees his house as an outlet for his creative expression.

“(It’s) the beauty of them, the art of them,” he said. “I like a lot of lights.”

Wright, who owns Seacleaning Aquarium Maintenence, installs and maintains aquariums and ponds in the region.

He also started a small side business three years ago hanging lights for some of his customers.

While these displays aren’t as elaborate as his own, Wright said he often braves bad weather and heights while standing on an extension ladder of up to 26 feet to make his customers happy.

“You have to have the fear in you to do it,” Wright said. “The adrenaline through your body: That’s what it is. It’s bringing the Christmas spirit through you.”

Connine Havens, one of the orchestrators behind the musical Sooy Lane light show in Absecon, believes this kind of selflessness is essential for someone who runs a massive Christmas light display.

Although they’ve had to hit pause on their musical light show this year after 12 years, Havens and her partner, Charlie Auchter, 48, know it takes a different level of dedication to run a holiday extravaganza.

“It takes somebody who’s very dedicated and very unselfish because they give so much of their time for other people. They really get the joy from seeing the joy on everybody else’s face,” said Havens, 58.

They all have different tastes: Gerrish removed all inflatable decorations from his yard this year, while Wright is always searching for bigger blowups, adding a penguin this year that is more than two stories tall. Wright enjoys a silent display, while Havens, Auchter and Gerrish all incorporated music.

Still, they all do an incredible amount of work, starting setup a month or two in advance and managing outages and potential disasters until mid-January.

All three decorators say they aren’t motivated by outdoing their neighbors. If anything, their competition is internally driven.

“I don’t try to outdo anybody or do more than anybody else. I just try to do what I can do,” Wright said.

Gerrish said he is always looking to fill space in his yard for people to enjoy.

“I look back at posts and I’m shocked at how empty the yard was and people were still taking pictures,” Gerrish said.

Gerrish and Havens have also worked together in the past to create their own Christmas community.

The two houses, which are only about a three-minute walk apart, have sparked a block party atmosphere on the weekends approaching Christmas. They coordinated their live character nights so that when Santa Claus arrives at Sooy Lane he can greet crowds alongside “Frozen” princesses Ana and Elsa on Curan Avenue.

Gerrish’s next-door neighbor has a sign with an arrow pointing to his house that reads “See my Christmas decorations.” Gerrish runs a wire into the neighboring yard so a spotlight can shine on the sign. He’d love for the show to grow to encompass the entire street.

That can be expensive, but many of these decorators have learned how to search for the best deals or do it themselves.

Wright said his lights typically last 5 to 10 years, but when he does have to buy more he spends about $1,500 to $2,000 at the end of the year for both him and his customers. Wright prefers to shop at the end of the season when lights are discounted at most stores.

Gerrish and Miller, who is a welder, have learned how to update their figures over the years so they shine brighter.

The large letters on the side of their home that spell JOY were originally part of a display and not up for sale. But after waiting long enough, Gerrish was able to buy the decorations for $300 and outfit them with brighter LEDs.

“If it’s something that I know my brother and I can revamp in the future, then we get it,” Gerrish said.

These decorators work to brighten others’ holiday seasons, but they also encourage viewers to give back.

Havens and Auchter typically asked for donations to the Atlantic Cancer Foundation, and Wright previously requested visitors donate canned pet food for shelters if they stopped by to see the lights. Gerrish asks visitors to donate to Alex’s Lemonade Stand.

All three have plans to return next year.

“I always say I’m not going to do it and I do it. You get the Christmas spirit in you, you’ve got to do something,” Wright said.

Havens plans to add more than 400,000 lights and open up the home’s backyard next year.

“We are buying way more new stuff to come back bigger and better next year,” she said.

Gerrish, who recently decided to go back to school and is a student at Atlantic Cape Community College, said he has every intention of returning next year with that same type of madness.

“If you want to achieve something nuts, you have to do something nuts. That’s with everything in life, not just Christmas lights.”

Contact: 609-272-7239 aauble@pressofac.com

Staff Writer

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