How the ‘Yoda’ of Christmas lights changed the holidays forever

December 10, 2013

(iStock/Minleon)

The first time Chuck Smith made his Christmas lights blink was almost the last.

“It’s truly amazing, but the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen for Christmas,” Smith thought as he stood outside his Nashville home in 1983. He’d hooked his lights into an Apple clone computer to make his front-yard display do something different. He knew instantly he didn’t like how the lights stood out compared to the rest of the block’s reverent, static lights. Smith was ready to take the lights down.

Then a car stopped in front of his house and kids piled out.

“They were just screaming and hollering and I knew I was on to something,” Smith said. So he stuck with the innovative displays, working on his craft each year, and was soon called “Yoda” by  Christmas light enthusiasts at the yearly conference he would found.

“Everyone looks to Chuck Smith for technical solutions to phenomenal lighting opportunities,” said David Fred, CEO of Winterland Inc., a 300-employee company that specializes in Christmas light displays. “He’s probably done more and done it better than anyone else.”

As his elaborate displays drew attention over the years, Smith had to hire off-duty police officers to direct the traffic in front of his house.

“When I started this, I had a full head of hair and I’ve pretty much lost my hair. It’s amazing technology but you have to be careful because it can get way complicated,” said Smith, who last decorated his home in 2003.

While he’s stopped decorating his own home and handed the conference reins off to someone else, Smith remains in the business. He works for Light-O-Rama, which manufactures controllers that allow decorators to program their lights in remarkable detail, including synchronizing with music. Like this house:

Excessive Christmas lights are often linked to Clark Griswold, Chevy Chase’s character in the National Lampoon “Vacation” series, but his work now looks pedestrian with innovations in light technology.

You might be mad too if your decorations had been passed by. (Warner Bros.)
You might be mad too if your decorations had been passed by. (Warner Bros.)

The latest thing is RGB lights, which are a variety of LED lights that are capable of displaying any color. Christmas light enthusiasts find themselves with more options than ever before. Now the color and flashing pattern of every light hung on a house or tree can be elegantly programmed in the right hands.

“The technology is being perfected as we speak,” Fred said. “It probably won’t have its full potential utilized until next holiday season.” His company is currently testing RGB lights in some displays.

The industry is abandoning traditional incandescent lights for LED lights, which last longer, use less energy and suffer no lose of color after weeks spent in the sun.

Wonderland Inc. set up its first light park in 1992 for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce. Now it has a hand in more than 165 light parks and walk-throughs at locations ranging from speedways to zoos, museums and college campuses.

There’s no doubt the Clark Griswoldization of America is alive and well. Here are a few notable displays from over-the-top decorators:

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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