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Let there be lights

Tourism and Leisure Industry

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.

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.

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.

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."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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