Let there be lights

Michael Crehan began decorating his home at 9354 Tiller Drive, in Ellicott City, when he first moved there in 1987, to assure his then-young children that Santa would find them. His children are grown now, but he and his wife still put up elaborate displays every year, calling them "our gift to the community." (Staff Photo by Jen Rynda, Patuxent Publishing / December 22, 2011)

To satisfy their craving for a soul-warming helping of holiday spirit, many families navigate around their neighborhoods each December in search of homes ablaze with twinkling lights.

Such captivating exhibits of kilowatt-draining yard art are getting harder to find, local seekers say. So to help guide the family sleigh in the right direction, here are three Howard County examples that will take your kids' breath away and make everyone believe in the magic of Christmas.

5034 Durham Road East, Columbia

A white stretch limousine slowly drifted down Durham Road East like a ghostly barge last December, crammed with passengers clamoring to catch a glimpse of Charles Daniels' iconic Christmas lights display.

Submit a Letter to the Editor for the Laurel Leader, Columbia Flier and Howard County Times

The Beaverbrook homeowner watched as the limo driver made a five-point turn in the narrow neighborhood street before successfully backing into Daniels' driveway and parking there. Ten people piled out and started tramping around his yard, just as most visitors do.

Like thousands before them, who arrive in cars, school buses and charted buses, the group was making a special pilgrimage to view one of the most heralded displays of holiday ingenuity in the county.

Daniels, 73, doesn't give the trespassing a second thought, reassured by the six bales of straw he scatters on his front lawn to prevent the thawing-and-refreezing ground from becoming "mushy and messed-up."

Besides, he understands their curiosity.

"How can you not want to walk up the driveway under these nine arches and walk through the yard?" he asked, gesturing around the incredible display that takes him a month to erect.

How can you not, indeed.

"Four years ago, before the BGE rate increase, I used 450,000 lights and sent my electric meter spinning off its dial," he said. Vowing to conserve, he "cut back" to a mere 300,000 bulbs, he said, though he's gradually increasing that number each year as the household budget allows.

In the center of the front yard, Santa and his reindeer are frozen in flight, suspended with 16-strand aircraft cable that flexes with the wind — a necessity, the retired engineer said.

Jolly Old Saint Nick and the gang used to fly over the roof of his house, but there arose such a clatter every time a strong breeze blew that Daniels grew weary of hearing the sleigh banging around. His nerves were jangling a good bit, too, so he decided to lower Santa's flight path closer to the ground.

He still creates precise silhouettes of Christmas trees with vertical strands of colored lights in cone formations, carves out a river with blue lights for his herd of 60 deer to drink from, and uses discarded mirrors to invoke a pond after aluminum foil, bubble wrap and silver-painted wood all failed to do the trick.

He fashioned 3-foot-tall block letters that spell out "Season's Greetings" by connecting and illuminating PVC pipe and uses his well-lit house as a backdrop for the entire scene. He and his wife, Andrea Almand, a retired teacher, have lived there since 1995.

Daniels said visions of new designs pop into his head year-round, "even if I'm lying on a beach in Jamaica." It takes a month of planning, stringing and ladder-climbing to create his masterpiece, which he lights on the second Friday of December each year, he said.

Next year he may expand to neighbors' homes on both sides, since they've already volunteered their properties for the cause. That way he could use his entire, million-light inventory, Daniels points out with a gleam in his eye.

"I like the freedom of creating with lights," he said. "It's such a good feeling I get by doing this."

9354 Tiller Drive, Ellicott City

Ten years ago, a 7-year-old girl approached Michael Crehan at his home and handed him a note. The note thanked Crehan for decorating his house with so many bright lights that Santa would surely know where to find her and the other kids on their street.