Sunday 8 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 2) Let There Be Lights

The Christmas decoration we’re going to look at on this second Sunday in Advent are the Christmas lights, and one set of lights in particular.

Lights were originally just decorations for the Christmas tree but over the past 100 years they have spread to almost any surface that can be found.

There’s often rivalry between neighbours who try to out-do each other with Christmas light displays. I suppose it’s inevitable that television companies would create contests and award prizes to the best Christmas light display. They seem to turn everything into a conflict. In 2013 the ABC network in the USA created what is now called “The Great Christmas Light Fight” (conflict is even part of the title!). There have been seven series so far plus a Hallowe’en special.

Season 5, which aired in 2017, concluded with an episode called “Season Finale” on 18th December. One of the families selected to compete was a gay couple.

Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux have been decorating their home in Longwood, Florida, in elaborate Christmas light displays since 2006. They were inspired by a visit they made to Walt Disney World near Orlando the previous Christmas. (Incidentally, they both competed in the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago - Jim in bowling and Alex in tennis.)

Since 1995 Walt Disney World had hosted an extravagant Christmas light display owned by the Osborne family of Little Rock in Arkansas. The display contained several million individual lights and decorated the Osborne family home and property since 1986. The whole display was remounted on Residential Street, part of the Walt Disney studio back-lot which was included in the regular tram tour. It became known as The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights.

Inspired by this and other displays at Walt Disney World Jim Chesney and Alex Laneaux decided to create their own festive light display for the following year at their own home. It was an instant hit with their neighbourhood. Gradually, over the years, the display expanded so that by Christmas 2014 it included over 53,000 lights and 13,750 feet of extension cable. The lights were choreographed to a soundtrack of Christmas songs.

Neighbours had suggested premiering the display on Thanksgiving in the last week in November every year. This meant that Jim and Alex have to start work in September.

Needless to say their light display caught the attention of local media. In 2015 it caught the attention of “The Great Christmas Light Fight”. Janelle Eagle, the Associate Producer for the 2016 season, contacted Jim and Alex with a view to them auditioning for the show. They didn’t make it that year, but Janelle encouraged them to reapply for the 2017 season.

Once accepted for the show Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux had to have their display ready long before Thanksgiving. Filming of their “The Great Christmas Light Fight” episode had to be done in October for a December transmission.

Spurred on by the chance to compete with three other families from around the USA to produce their best ever light display Jim and Alex used 100,000 LED lights to create their own homage to the Osbourne Family Spectacle that had inspired them 12 years earlier. Sadly, they didn’t win the contest but Jim agreed with the choice of the winning display.

These days it’s rare for any television reality series not to have some openly lgbt input somewhere. With the “Great Christmas Light Fight” this comes with two major contributions, the aforementioned Janelle Eagle, and the host and judge in the first 5 seasons Michael Maloney.

Janelle Eagle is an ex-fundraiser for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Deformation (GLAAD) and an lgbt activist. In July 2016 she married her partner Jenna Robin.

Michael Moloney is an interior designer and has appeared on other shows, most prominently on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”. One of the episodes of the 2011 season centred around the Walker family, whose 11-year-old son committed suicide due to bullying he received because of his sexuality.

Of course, you don’t have to use thousands of lights to celebrate Christmas. And you don’t have to outdo anyone else. To coin a phrase “its quality that counts, not quantity”.

To finish with, here is a YouTube video of the Jim Cheslin and Alex Laneaux light display from 2016.

Next Sunday we’ll look at a more intimate Christmas decoration, something personal you can give to a loved one, and its links to Danish fairy tales.

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