Each year, families across the Richmond area illuminate the night and the holidays with a dizzying array of lights and decorations that attract thousands of visitors in cars, in buses, and even on foot. Of course, lots of folks decorate for Christmas, but these three families have observed the tradition for years, taking the holiday to an unparalleled wattage level! Why do they do it?
“It’s a happy place. I love the joy it brings people!”
If you want to really appreciate the holiday lights at the Henrico home of Bobby Phifer, you have to look up. “We do a lot up and above,” says Phifer, who has been lighting his home for the past 38 years. “The height makes the lights really cool.
Phifer’s brilliant display includes an 80-foot pine tree, two 60-foot maples and a 40-foot cedar tree. The trees are spread out between his house at 9604 Asbury Court and his mother’s home next door. Phifer’s night sky also includes a moon that sits 25 feet above his mother’s house, giving the impression that it fl oats in mid-air, and a new 18-foot tall tower that he refers to as NORAD’s East Coast Santa Tracking Station. NORAD (The North American Aerospace Defense Command) tracks Santa each year. The tower comes complete with fl ashing lights and a spinning radar dish. Phifer built the new holiday feature this summer
“I was working on it July Fourth weekend,” he says.
Phifer estimates that he puts up between 1 million and 1.5 million lights each Christmas. “Just between the three trees I have over 400,000 lights,” he says
His love of lights dates back to his childhood. He began helping his father put up holiday lights in 1974 when he was just seven years old. “We started putting lights around the door and two bushes and each year it kept growing and growing,” he says. “When I was twelve I would go to yard sales in the neighborhood looking for Christmas lights. We couldn’t afford to buy them in the store.We had to get them cheap. We still go to yard sales looking for blow molds [plastic figures that are lighted].”
Phifer’s and his mother’s home have been on Richmond’s Tacky Light Tour since the tour started. “We are the oldest consecutive running light display house in the area,” he says.
He and his wife, Bobbie, begin putting up lights for both houses in the middle of September. His two daughters, Katelyn, 13, and Chelsea, 15, also help out. “A week or two before we put them up we will pull things out and fix them,” he says. “Our back room is the Christmas hospital where we do repairs.”
To save time and effort, he keeps the lights in the tall trees year-round but every so often has to redo the strands. “They do fade over time,” he says. “The storms that came through this year destroyed the maple trees. I had to strip those lights out and redo them.”
He uses all types of lights in his display, everything from miniatures to old-fashioned larger bulbs. “We have very few of the larger lights because of the electrical pull,” he says. “When I was a kid we had all big lights. I like the big lights. I like the old-fashioned look.”
Phifer and his family turn on the lights Thanksgiving night around six o’clock – most nights thereafter the lights come on between shortly after five and stay on until at least ten at night. The display stays up through January 1. “We have had about 3,000 people waiting for us to turn them on at six that first night,” he says.On Fridays and Saturdays and days closer to Christmas, Phifer has been known to leave the lights on as late as one in the morning. “We have had people come up and wake us up and ask us to turn the lights on.”
As part of the tradition, Phifer and his family hand out hot chocolate every night except Thanksgiving night. “My mom stands outside every night,” Phifer says.“She lives for this. She loves it. She sits out and talks to people. Watching her is like watching a little kid in a candy store.”
Phifer encourages visitors to come to the front porch and walk down the driveway to see all of the displays. “That way you can see it from different angles,” he says. “A lot of the stuff you can’t see from the road.”
Over the years, he has had many items stolen from his yard. “I’ve even had stuff stolen off my front porch in the middle of the night,” he says, adding that those kinds of things are going to happen. “You have to expect it. I now spend about three days running cable through the things in the yard.”
Mounting a display the size of Phifer’s comes with a cost. He has had to install 400 amps of electricity in his home and 300 amps in his mother’s home – most homes have 200 amps. “I am basically maxed out on power,” he says, noting that each night he turns on 69 20-amp breakers to power the display for both houses. The family spends about $5,000 each year to display the lights.“We take donations to help pay for the power bill,” he says.
Phifer says even though it’s expensive, he and his family create this fantasyland because they enjoy doing it. “When I was a kid, my mom and dad took us out to look at lights. I always said I wanted to decorate so people want to come and see it,” Phifer says, adding that people who stop by often tell him how his display has made them forget about the troubles they’ve had during the year. “No one is sad or upset when they come here. It’s a happy place. I love the joy it brings people. People shake your hand and say thank you.”
Phifer has a special place in his heart for one visitor – an older blind man who comes and walks around the display with his grandchildren. The man told Phifer that he had sight when he was young and could remember Christmas lights. “His grandchildren walk him around and tel him about the lights,” Phifer says. “They will tell him to look up and then to look higher. He shakes my hand and thanks me. He said to me ‘my grandchildren explain it to me.’”
The smile on his daughter’s face makes it worth it
Matthew Satterwhite and his wife, April, of Hanover County began decorating their home at 7396 Kelshire Trace in Mechanicsville for their daughter’s enjoyment. The tradition started innocently six years ago. “When my daughter was two, we walked into a Rite Aid and saw a [yard decoration of a] snowman and his wife pulling a kid on a sled. I thought that would look perfect in our yard.”
In 2006, after the Christmas season ended, Satterwhite scoured Lowe’s and Home Depot for left over Christmas decorations and bought all that he could find. “Most of them can see me coming,” he said. “They know who I am.”
His collection of lights has grown from 30,000 in 2006 to 110,000 this year. “I like to cover my entire house with lights,” he says, noting that his home has been on the Tacky Light Tour for the last four years. “My whole roof and siding are covered.
Each year he transforms the 60-foot pin oak in the front yard into a Christmas tree with 16,200 sparkling lights. “When you turn into the neighborhood you can see a big white star,” he says, adding that he has to use a pulley to get the star to the top of the tree. “I need help with that so I call over my buddies.”
The stars in Satterwhite’s display contain clear lights but the majority of his lights are multi-colored. “I love multi-color lights,” he says. “When I was young my family didn’t put up a lot of lights. Growing up we did the Tacky Light Tour.” Attitudes have shifted for this generation of Satterwhites.
As evidenced by his display, Satterwhite has a penchant for the blow molds that were popular in the fifties. “I have a little over 50 blow molds,” he says. “They are hard to get hold of these days. The company that makes them is in North Carolina. You have to place a huge order to order from them. You can also get them on eBay.”
His blow molds include Disney characters, Looney Tunes characters, Santa, Mrs. Claus, toy soldiers, nutcrackers, angels, a choir, and a children’s nativity.“I also have a full reindeer display with Rudolph,” he says, adding that because his family loves Disney he will have 20 different hidden Mickeys in his display this year. “Last year we had eight.”
He also plans to add a few new items, including two mega Christmas trees with starflakes (huge snowflakes that serve as stars) and dancing Christmas arches with 80 strands of 100-count mini-lights choreographed to music. Programming the lights to music can be time consuming, he says. “It takes a while. You have to be pretty good with a computer.It’s not something you will learn in a couple of hours.”
It takes a year of preparation to create and mount Satterwhite’s display.From February through April he concentrates on checking each light bulb to make sure it works and fixes any that don’t. Decorating begins at the end of September. The first light that goes on is a Christmas countdown sign that starts with 99 Days. This year the sign was turned on September 17. “It’s on every night and the kids go crazy,” Satterwhite says.
He and his family have the majority of their lights up before the end of daylight savings time. Decorations that are added to the yard can’t be put out until all the leaves are gone and the grass stops growing. The family turns on the Christmas lights on Thanksgiving night and keeps them up through December 31. The display is lit from five-thirty to ten-thirty Sunday through Thursday, and until eleven o’clock on Fridays and Saturdays. “We don’t turn the lights on in the rain,” Satterwhite says, noting that he asks people to stay in the driveway when they are looking at the lights.
Last year, the family gave out more than 1,000 candy canes to people that came to look at the display. “This year we are handing out Dum Dum lollipops,” Satterwhite says. “We’re trying to be different.” Because his mother is a breast cancer survivor, Satterwhite also hands out pencils to raise breast cancer awareness and accepts donations for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “The first year – three years ago – we collected $120,” Satterwhite says. “Last year we collected $532 for the cause.”
“It’s about giving, sharing, and spending time with each other.”
Henry Thedieck’s lakefront display of Christmas lights at 9215 Venetian Way serves in part as a tribute to his father, Dr. Charles Thedieck, who passed away four years ago. “Christmas was a big deal in our family when I was growing up,” Thedieck says. “The display has helped our family heal after my dad’s death.”
Thedieck’s father always loved seeing lights at Christmas time. He didn’t decorate the family home because Thedieck’s mother worried that adding lights would make the house look tacky. Ironically, Thedieck’s house is now on the Tacky Lights Tour. “It was a running joke in our family,” Thedieck says of his mother’s hesitance about adding lights to the family’s decorations.
Thedieck began lighting the back of his house in 2003. “We decided to light the back because of the way the lights reflected in the water,” he says, noting that at first it was a modest display that worked perfectly with the pond in the West End neighborhood. “It gave my dad an avenue to do what he had always wanted to do: string lights all over the place.”
Often Thedieck would find a box on the porch when he came home from work. “It could be anything, a strand of lights, a figurine. Stuff would just show up,” he says, noting that the gifts were from his father.
Today the up-to-100,000-light display includes figurines as well as lighted buildings, trees, bushes, and flowerbeds. “There isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to it,” Thedieck says of the decorating scheme. “We try to keep each theme together. For example, one theme is a winter scene with polar bears and igloos.”
The family – Thedieck, his wife, Tina, his 16-year-old daughter Sammi, his mother, Mary Martha, and his brother, Fred – begins putting up lights at the End of October – this year early november. One of the trees included in the display is a weeping willow. “that has to be trimmed down to the limbs and each limb has to be wrapped,” thedieck says. “We have about 8,000 or 9,000 lights on that one tree. This year we are adding about 5,000 or 6,000 lights to it.”
Lights are added to the buildings in the back yard before anyone tackles the trees and figurines. “the buildings are where we store all of our Christmas decorations,” thedieck says.
The family’s display runs from the Sunday following Thanksgiving until New Year’s eve, starting at dark and ending at ten-thirty or eleven each night. Thedieck believes his home became popular with the public after it was shown briefly on a discovery Channel show in 2003 or 2004 that highlighted Christmas lights in richmond. “That’s what got the momentum going,” he says, adding that his neighbors love the lakefront display. “They all get a kick out of it. We get notes from the neighbors telling us how much they enjoy it.”
Thedieck is very cognizant about the traffic in the neighborhood. “We want to be conscientious about the neighbors,” he says, adding that the only way to view the lights is by driving along Maybeury drive. “We try to keep the traffic down.”
Since his father’s death, Thedieck’s mother has stepped into her husband’s role. “My mom plays a big role in designing this display each year,” thedieck says.
As a special memory to Thedieck’s father, the family added lights to a tree in the middle of the lake. “That represents him,” Thedieck says, adding, “Christmas is a big part of the Thedieck family. It’s about giving, sharing, and spending time with each other.”