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‘Are You Going to Be the One to Get Rid of Santa?’


On a winding country road, four miles from the nearest traffic light in rural Dutchess County, N.Y., the holiday lights appear like a carnival fun house shattering the darkness.

Every year, roughly 60,000 visitors stream into Union Vale, dwarfing the population of the town of 4,600, their cars crawling up the wooded, unlit roads to take a slow tour around the circular driveway of Timothy and Grace Gay, the Guinness World Records holders for the most lights on a residential property.

This year, 720,420 lights created the vibrating, pulsating cacophony, set to a soundtrack that plays over a local radio frequency, the colors changing with each of the 255 programmed songs. Giant globes, hearts, shooting stars and rainbows suspend over a pond, the reflection giving the illusion that this homespun creation is descending into the earth. If lights could speak, they would shout out the block letter words of one sign: “Top That.”

“It’s amazing, it’s absolutely amazing,” said Lauren Bellantoni, 37, as her car inched through the loop, an unending line behind her.

For the fans, the lights are supersized holiday cheer. For the critics, it’s a holiday nightmare.

“It’s essentially running a Legoland out of your property for 40 days,” said Edward J. Kasche, a middle school social studies teacher who was partly inspired to run for a seat on the town board because of his long frustration with what he describes as a lax municipal response to the show. Mr. Kasche, 41, lost the November election, drawing 15 percent of the vote.

On the busiest nights, the line of vehicles can stretch close to a mile or farther in this town an hour and a half north of New York City.

Residents say that over the years cars have parked on their lawns, damaging their grass, and visitors have left behind mementos from the hours spent in wait — empty alcohol bottles, dime bags with remnants of marijuana and, in one instance, a jar full of urine, possibly from a driver who consumed too much hot cocoa during the long, dark wait for dazzle.

“The novelty has worn off,” said Joseph Kile, 37, a lieutenant with the LaGrange Fire District, who says he is not opposed to the display, but worries that the heavy traffic could block emergency vehicles.

Mr. Gay, 62, a retired engineering manager, and Dr. Gay, 61, who has a doctorate in nursing, said they are providing a great attraction for tourists and a social benefit for the community — on a recent night, nearly every visitor dropped cash into a bucket that a firefighter held out on the end of a wooden pole. The couple said they have collected $656,000 for various charities since 2011, with most of the donations going to the community support fund for the volunteer fire department.

The month of merriment far outweighs the gripes of a few residents, they said. By Mr. Gay’s tally, 20 couples have even gotten engaged under the lights. “If you bring joy and happiness to 50,000 people and you have 10 or 20 don’t like you, I think that’s a fair trade off,” he said.

Many neighbors said they embrace the chaos, including Bernadette and William Burke, who love to watch the show from their hot tub, but for years could not use their washing machine or dishwasher while the lights were on. Mr. Gay said the problem was resolved when the electric company put the Gay house on its own transformer.

The couple found ways to manage — timing their laundry and dishwashing to the show, and setting up what Mr. Burke, 62, who works in sales at a plumbing supply company, called the “Burke line of defense,” to keep cars from parking in their driveway. “It was fun, it was a lot of fun,” said Ms. Burke, 63, a nurse practitioner.

Still, the lights are a frequent topic of discussion at town board meetings. Some residents have chronicled their grievances in letters and emails to the town supervisor, the town building department and their New York State Assembly member. Some have called for the light show to be moved to a local park.

“The town is in a sacred covenant with the residents to ensure the safety of our neighborhoods,” one Union Vale resident, Dana Kilcrease, Jr., said at a 2019 town board meeting. “The town board has failed.”

At the same 2019 meeting, Glenn Morrison, a Union Vale resident who said he worked in the field of health and safety, described the display as “an accident waiting to happen.” He filed a complaint against the town with the state in 2020, claiming it failed to enforce electrical and life safety codes. The state dismissed the complaint.

When reached by email, Mr. Morrison, 67, and Mr. Kilcrease, 70, declined to comment.

The town has made improvements over the years by designating constables to direct traffic and collecting trash in the mornings, said Betsy C. Maas, the town supervisor, who was first elected in 2017, but lost re-election this November.

She said the town does not have the authority to stop a homeowner from decorating on their own property.

Plus, the display is a point of small town pride for most residents and a critical source of revenue for the fire department, she said, and the few who would like to put an end to it are outliers.

“Are you going to be the one to get rid of Santa?” she asked.

The lights first went up in 1995 the way most Christmas lights do. Mr. and Dr. Gay had their first child and decided it was time to start ramping up the holiday cheer. They strung about 600 lights around their property. A few years later, Mr. Gay turned his attention to the pond that sits in the front of his 1.7-acre property, decorating the shrubs and trees that surround it. The hobby grew from there, christened ERDAJT, an unpronounceable combination of their three children’s initials.

In 2011, Dr. Gay learned that the family was only a few hundred lights shy of overtaking an Australian homeowner who held the Guinness title. She decided to beat the record. “She was a little fanatical that year,” Mr. Gay said. “She was driving everybody crazy.” In 2012, they won the world record, only to lose it the following year. In 2014, they reclaimed the title and have held it ever since.

They have become local celebrities and have had brushes with national fame. In 2013, they competed, and lost, in the first season of “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” an ABC reality show. Mr. Gay said he found it competitive and judgmental. “I actually hated that,” he said.

But they are going to give TV another chance, and is working on a reality show about families with the Hallmark Channel.

The light show “is part of our identity,” said Mr. Gay as he pushed a wheelbarrow full of extension cords one cold November morning. It takes Mr. Gay and his family three months to erect the display, working weekends, from early morning until dark, even in the rain.

Mr. Gay declined to say how much money he spends on materials. But David Moore, the owner, HolidayCoro, a holiday light supplier in Texas that sells some of the lights Mr. Gay uses, said lights are often sold at deep discounts off-season. Mr. Moore estimated that a clever shopper could buy 100,000 traditional lights for around $3,600, and 100,000 RGB pixel lights for around $25,000. Controllers, of which Mr. Gay has 108, range from $225 to $600 apiece, he said.

With only 13 days left until showtime — the Friday after Thanksgiving — time was of the essence at the Gay home. All three adult children were in town, and everyone had a task Mr. Gay keeps elaborate spreadsheets detailing every element of the work, down to the hours each family member contributes.

Quiet and focused, Mr. Gay surveyed the area, giving directions and placing elements — controllers, extension cords and mesh framing full of lights. Early in the afternoon he announced that this would be the last year for the “Top That” sign. Next year, he’d reconfigure the materials to spell “Happy Holidays.”

Mr. Gay’s son, Dan, 27, looked relieved. “I always hated that sign,” he said, as he and his girlfriend assembled a 28-foot-long rectangle of lights suspended between two trees. “It’s boastful and pretentious.”

John, 25, the younger son who had driven with his girlfriend from Boston, his fifth trip of the season, spent most of the day high up in a 60-foot maple without a harness, sometimes balancing on one foot as he contorted his body to drape a bundle of meteor lights over the branches.

“He’s does make me nervous, but I don’t look at him,” said Dr. Gay. “Out of sight, out of mind.”

Dr. Gay spent the morning crouched on the ground in front of the pond with her daughter, Emily, 28, who had driven five hours from her home in Rochester, as the two assembled the mesh framing for two 10-foot tall stars and a 14-foot tall heart that would be suspended above the pond.

“It looks so good!” shouted a boy as he road past the house on his scooter.

Forty miles of wire lights and eight miles of extension cords crisscrossed the grounds, connecting to controller boxes suspended from the trees and light structures. The electricity only costs the Gays about $350 a season, yet the family cannot use the oven or appliances when the display is on, which has led to some half-cooked dishes.

Could such an arrangement create a fire hazard in a heavily wooded area, a reporter inquired?

“Fire risk from what?” Mr. Gay said. The LED lights are low voltage and the controllers’ fuses shut off automatically, he said. “That is absolute silliness. I’ve only been doing it for 28 years.”

On a foggy December night, families piled into the backs of pickup trucks and children squeezed through SUV moon roofs to take in the blazing lights of glory. Many of the vehicles looped through more than once to see the giant Merry Christmas sign, along with 1,500 strobe lights, 230 flood lights around the pond, 31 miniature trees and 65 wire frame animals.

“Thank you for all that you do!” shouted one visitor as her car rolled through.

The gratitude also pours into the buckets. Most nights, the fire department collects donations, around $30,000 a year, making it their primary donor. But the Gays reserve some of the busiest nights for local children’s charities.

Since 2014, the McElroy family has spent one night a season in the driveway of the Gays’ home to collect donations for the Ryan McElroy Children’s Cancer Foundation, a Hudson Valley charity. The nonprofit honors Ryan, who had a rare bone cancer and died just shy of his 5th birthday, and provides financial support to families enduring childhood cancer.

The nights are often bitter, but there is usually hot cocoa, wine and dessert on hand, said Tralee McElroy, 31, Ryan’s older sister. But it’s worth it. Last year, the McElroys collected over $6,000 on the Saturday before Christmas.

While the fire department takes its earnings home each night, the Gays collect the money for the charities, giving it to them the following day.

“He gives us every dollar, every penny, every check,” Ms. McElroy said. “It’s a little tedious, but it’s OK.”

The Gay family knows putting on the elaborate affair year after year is not sustainable.

Mr. Gay, who retired this year, said he’s finding it harder to schedule time to get the work done since his children are grown and have moved hours away in different directions.

He and Dr. Gay have decided that when they reach $1 million in donations, they’ll turn the lights off.

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