Sure it's a chore, putting up a Christmas light display that consists of maybe 1 million lights on two acres of land on a hill overlooking the Shenandoah River. Brothers-in-law Roy Cooper and Carlton Utterback usually haul out the holly and ladders long before anyone can think about building a real Frosty the Snowman.

But try being on the other side of the 10 racing reindeer: Try being a gawker.

Specifically, just try to pull off Route 7 three miles west of the Loudoun-Clarke County line for a look at the Cooper-Utterback extravaganza. That's where the drama is.

Cars in ditches.

Hollering matches over parking spaces.

State troopers issuing warnings.

"Last year we went down and one woman was in the ditch. She pulled over too far," said Cooper, 59, a meat merchandiser for 28 Super Fresh stores and a resident of the hilltop house on Gordon's Ridge Road for nine years. "My son and son-in-law went down with me to give her help, but she refused. The police came later on and got her for DWI. It's sad."

In the frivolity and merriment of the season, the revelers who have made an art of decoration appreciation usually are the most overlooked and the least understood.

Without them, it would be like the Scotch pine that fell in the forest.

"I get enjoyment from people pulling over at the side of the road and really looking at the lights and all," Cooper reflected on a recent night. "It makes them happy, and it gives me a smile."

And the gawkers fill the important but traditionally overlooked role of decoration watchdogs, which is of particular importance in rural areas, such as Route 7 west of Round Hill.

If a string of lights fails and Cooper doesn't notice, the light display aficionados go to work. They swap gossip: Burned-out lights in the manger, toppled archways, Rudolphs without their red noses.

"I hear most of the stuff," Cooper said. "I get it around the 7-Eleven, or my wife hears about it at the bank, or someone will say something at my job."

Last weekend, for example, a couple of strings of stationary lights--Cooper doesn't cotton to the blinking variety--shorted out and started to flash.

"Well, everybody started calling me," said Cooper, who had to climb a 24-foot ladder last Sunday to fix the deviant decorations. "My wife was at church. I prayed she'd come home real fast."

The brothers-in-law never meant to start a community tradition. It was just Cooper and Utterback bumping into one another at the hardware store, another string of icicles sheepishly shoved into a coat pocket, yet another steel wire reindeer stuck in a cart. (Christmas Bambies, with 350 lights each, show up really, really well in a hillside yard.)

"We just sort of like the lights, and my brother-in-law and sister have always done lighting and they've added to it through the years," said Utterback, 62, a retired manager with Virginia Power. His sister, Betty Jo, married Cooper and moved to the hilltop from Purcellville nine years ago.

The Utterbacks, Carlton and Shirley, arrived five years ago from Annandale.

Soon, they were in a friendly competition with the Coopers, who had been erecting the annual light displays seven or eight years ago--the date's a little foggy.

"Let me ask my husband," said Betty Jo Cooper, 60, a loan officer at F&M Bank in Leesburg. "He's the one that does it all."

Well, not quite.

There was the year--last year, in fact--that Betty Jo "helped out" by coiling strings of lights.

Lacking instructions, Betty Jo figured the best way to coil was with the "female" end of the cord facing out, whereas a true practitioner knows that the "male end"--the one with the prongs--should be at the end of the coil.

That way, when Cooper unrolls his lights the next year, he can plug them into the nearest outlet without having to unroll the whole coil and quickly find out if they still work.

"You have to plug them in before putting them on the shrubbery because that's the way I check them," said Cooper, who makes about 20 trips to the hardware store each year and spends about 3 1/2 weeks erecting the display. "These things drive you nuts because you can put them up and as soon as you turn around, one set's out."

But in the end, the Christmas spirit prevails.

Residents of the area have come to anticipate the annual drive by the Cooper-Utterback home place.

The brothers-in-law, whose electric bills each go up about $45 a month during the holidays, even have adjusted their display schedule--typically 5 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. and all night on New Year's Eve--to accommodate early morning commuters on Route 7.

"The biggest complaint is from all the people going to work about 4 a.m. to 6 a.m.," Cooper said. "They're going by here about 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and they don't get to see the lights. Every year I get complaints on that."

He now rises at 3 a.m. a few times a week to turn on the display, which Betty Jo turns off when she gets up for work about 7 a.m.

They wouldn't think of taking a hiatus--even for just a year. Their lights are a rural beacon, an attraction that draws a bona fide audience.

"There's a bunch of them down there right now," Cooper said, looking out his window on a recent weeknight. "Sunday there was 45, 50 people down there. We've had several folks come out and take pictures of it. Every year we get four or five letters from people just saying how much they appreciate it. I just like to see how it makes everybody happy."

CAPTION: Carlton and Shirley Utterback, whose home is above, have engaged in friendly competition with the Coopers, who are family members and their neighbors.

CAPTION: Spectators get a dazzling eyeful from Route 7 of the light display at the home of Roy and Betty Jo Cooper just west of the Loudoun-Clarke County line.

CAPTION: A lighted nativity scene is part of the Coopers' Christmas display, which has been a local attraction and a family tradition for seven or eight years.