Here in the tropics, where Christmas Day is more likely to find the locals in tennis shorts than long johns, stringing the Christmas lights is a particularly critical element in conjuring the holiday spirit.
Al Copeland understands that.
It takes 50 workers all of November to drape Copeland's house with Christmas lights.
It takes seven sheriff's deputies working every night in December to control the 900 cars an hour that bring an estimated 350,000 sightseers each season. Some wait in their cars for two hours on a Friday or Saturday night for a 45-second crawl past the three-story house in this suburb west of New Orleans.
Copeland, 41, founder and owner of Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken, is a high-school dropout who grew up in the projects of New Orleans, a local boy gone good in a big way, a legend who travels by helicopter, Rolls Royce and speedboat, the spoils of his spicy-chicken empire.
This man knows his way around the extravagant gesture. "I'm really into Christmas, you got to understand," he said.
In this, the 10th year of the Copeland Lights, he is into Christmas to the tune of $50,000 and something like 400,000 tiny bulbs. (The National Christmas tree on the Ellipse in Washington has 1,200.) By day, the murals and chicken-wire forms surrounding his Spanish-style home look silly, a tacky carnival attraction lost in the suburbs.
By night, they are bewitching.
The three-story snowman is white and red and green. The camels are orange, their humps draped with red and purple cloths. The two-story angels have blue robes, golden hair, white wings. Every tree and shrub on the thoroughly landscaped lawn is lit -- and the lights come in at least a dozen colors. Yellow neon circles form halos for the life-size Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
Copeland practices in private what he preaches in public. Inside, past the gym, past the bar to the indoor swimming pool ringed by poinsettias -- doorways are edged with lights and pine boughs. Wreaths hang from everything.
Where there is Christmas on such an outrageous scale, Scrooge or the Grinch can hardly be far away. In this case, the reluctant Scrooge is Copeland's neighbor, attorney Burton Klein. "It makes us captives in our own homes . . . , " Klein said of the spectacle. "It's the right thing in the wrong place."
Klein said he does not enjoy hearing himself denounced on radio talk shows, does not enjoy having his tires slashed, does not enjoy the obscene phone calls. But he also does not enjoy having "one-12th of my life every year" turned into a traffic jam.
The Grinch is the Louisiana Supreme Court, which sided with Klein last fall and sent Copeland home "to reduce substantially the size and extravagance of his display."
Nonetheless, by all accounts, it is bigger this year than last.
Copeland took particular note of a sentence in the ruling that limited the injunction to his property and left him a loophole big enough to fly a sleigh and reindeer through. The two-story sleigh and reindeer were flown down the street to a neighbor's lawn. The snowman is next door, the Santa Claus is across the street, and Rudolph has pranced down the block.
The display may be all over the neighborhood now -- but, as Copeland points out, his house is toned down, "just like the Supreme Court said." Although many of Copeland's neighbors were delighted to take on part of the trappings, neighborhood sentiment is by no means unanimous.
"It's a pain . . . ," said Marlene Montz, 17, a high school senior who lives a block from Copeland. "It's like, you want to come home, and it's no left turn, no right turn, go this way, come back that way, and then the cops look at you, like, 'Where do you think you're going?' It's like, I live here!"
Montz says that the lights are beautiful. But she also says her friends can't get to her house, the traffic makes any outing a major tactical maneuver, and even at home, there is the constant susurration of cars, tour buses, voices, horns.
The display seems to turn its beholders into children. There is no posturing, no affecting of cool distance, in the face of such playfulness. But its obvious appeal did not prevent Jefferson Parish Judge Alvin Rudy Eason from Friday finding Copeland "obviously in contempt" of the Supreme Court ruling and fining him $500.
Copeland said he didn't think much of Eason's order that he unplug the three angels and said he might move them to a neighbor's lawn. But Copeland's lawyer called the order "a 95 percent victory" -- and he predicted that Klein's case would be back in the high court "before Christmas."
In the meantime, Copeland said, "I can't see stopping this for one person, when hundreds of thousands get so much pleasure from it."
Besides, he said, "If you turn the lights out tonight, you'd still have all the traffic. People would be coming by and pointing to my house and saying, 'That's the house that used to have all those Christmas lights.'