It was enough, Crehan said, to convince him to continue his light display — "just when I was ready to hang it all up with my kids in high school."

Crehan, 56, began his lighting journey as a small peace offering in 1987, when he and wife Anne moved their four kids, then aged 18 months to 6 years, from their Baltimore County home just a week before Christmas. His older kids were afraid Santa wouldn't know where they'd gone, so he strung some lights around the front door to help guide Rudolph's way.

That was all it took for a family tradition to take root and blossom. Since the Crehans' lot backs up to an open right-of-way, he eventually decided to cheer weary commuters in what has grown into bumper-to-bumper traffic on Route 99 with a lights display in his backyard to match his front streetscape.

As his display grew, Crehan became a Clark Griswold wannabe, imitating the hapless hero of "Christmas Vacation" movie fame by stapling 30,000 lights all over his roof, chimney and beyond. And just like Griswold, he had a close call when he slipped and nearly fell two stories. That ended ascents to the roof, he said.

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Nonetheless, his gorgeous ground display — which comes alive every Dec. 1 and features lighted trees and fencing — captures the hearts of many who stop to say thanks, often bearing gifts like bottles of wine. Anne, who's responsible for writing Merry Christmas in lights on the fence in the back yard, serves as the "gaudy police" and keeps him from going overboard, he said.

"It's our gift to the community and we never get tired of doing it," said Crehan, who now has a young granddaughter to please. "It was meant to be."

4802 Red Hill Way, Ellicott City

As Santa pulled up in front of their house on the Ellicott City Volunteer Fire Department engine last week, Bryan and Angie Bartlett and their two young kids weren't the only ones smiling. Many of their neighbors had turned out not only to greet Santa and see the faces of wee ones enthralled at the spectacle, but to thank Bryan for his handiwork.

"We get letters in our mailbox and a girl brought us three boxes of Girl Scout cookies once," said Bartlett, 33, of the fun lighting display that has nearly doubled in scope each of the past three years.

What first sets the Bartlett home apart are the three, blinking red arrows that entice drivers heading west on Route 103 to turn left onto their street, a new feature this year.

Curiosity aroused, drivers are then treated to a rooftop lighting tour de force that features designs that alternate between Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and a trio of white stars.

"I got up there with the kids' chalk and drew it all out," he said, unfazed by the scale of his 50-foot wide shingled canvas.

Despite that show of confidence, he trekked over to Charles Daniels' house in Beaverbrook just after Thanksgiving this year to check out his display. He discovered Daniels outside working, and left an hour later with some lighting tips from the master. Like Daniels, Bartlett thrives on the challenge, working just weeks after knee surgery last year to get the job done.

He's built 5-foot candy canes and several 8-foot stars from PVC pipe, as well as created an arch at the driveway entrance.

"Everyone's expecting this now, so I don't see why I wouldn't continue," said Bartlett, whose kids, Bryson, 6, and Brynn, 3, stay outside and watch Daddy till he's done. "It's kind of hard to stop."