Let There Be Light

Richard Diller, left, stands in front of his house with his next-door neighbor, Steve Andrews, in Severna Park. Last year, both houses were dark.
Richard Diller, left, stands in front of his house with his next-door neighbor, Steve Andrews, in Severna Park. Last year, both houses were dark. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 22, 2007

For more than a year, the lights sat in Richard Diller's garage, tens of thousands of bulbs and strands gone dark on his dusty shelves. And all that time, his neighbor Steve Andrews had followed suit, keeping his own lights stowed away.

But no one on Severn Avenue could forget about the war of lights that raged for years on their block -- epic battles between Richard and Steve every December that bathed the street in bright, almost psychedelic bursts of color.

People in the small corner of Severna Park in Anne Arundel County would watch from their porches as the two men, equally burly and bullheaded, strove to outdo each other. As they worked atop their ladders, a flurry of insults and taunts would fly across the few feet of grass separating their homes. Down below, their long-suffering wives would simply shake their heads.

Then last year, it all came to a sudden end. On Thanksgiving, when the lights battle usually began, Richard's wife, Eileen, passed away in her sleep.

Suddenly, Christmas lights were the last thing on anyone's mind. In the weeks that followed, all the caustic banter, the gaudy props and bright strings, even Christmas itself, seemed wrong somehow -- too cheery, too trivial.

For the first time in 12 years, the two houses passed Christmas in darkness.

* * *

Last month, as another Thanksgiving came and went, Steve's house remained dark. By this time, he and Richard normally would have started their battle, but neither brought it up. Instead, they sat on Richard's porch after work, shooting the breeze and trading halfhearted digs. Steve thought about broaching the subject and coaxing his neighbor to put up a few strands. Maybe the colored bulbs would distract him from his empty house.

So a few weeks ago, Steve, 45, mentioned some lights he had spotted up the street.

In the heyday of their battles, few others on the block had bothered to decorate their homes. It would have been like turning on a flashlight in broad daylight -- kind of pointless. But this year, a few lights had begun popping up, as if to fill the darkness. One couple a few doors down even wrapped a tree in a few thousand bulbs, the way Steve used to do.

Let's go check it out, he told Richard, 49.

They stood for a while in front of the couple's house.


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