Let It Glow – Times Publications, December 2013

Let It Glow - HEADER

More than 250,000 twinkling, multicolored Christmas lights varnish Lee Sepanek’s Phoenix home—one of the Valley’s most ornately decorated residences of the holiday season.

Strings of bulbs drip from the towering trees above a lawn of shimmering snowmen, stars and Santa Clauses. Beaming reindeer adorn the roof, while red and green animatronic figurines flit and frolic inside each icicle-trimmed window. From his front porch, Sepanek conducts the concert of illumination, greeting the thousands of annual visitors who stop by to get a glimpse of his personal winter wonderland.

Sepanek, known in the neighborhood as “Christmas Lee,” is famous for his fantastically festooned display—a tradition he’s maintained for more than 30 years.

“I’m out every night on my deck, and I get to see people I only see one time a year. It’s like a family reunion,” says Sepanek, a contractor and father of two grown kids. “I have people who used to come to my house as children, coming now with their children—it’s pretty neat.”  

Last holiday season, Eric Cyr’s neighbor hung a giant, neon sign with the word “ditto” and an arrow pointed toward his elaborate Christmas light display. Photo by Nick Bartlett

Last holiday season, Eric Cyr’s neighbor hung a giant, neon sign with the word “ditto” and an arrow pointed toward his elaborate Christmas light display. Photo by Nick Bartlett

Beginning in September, Sepanek spends thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours assembling the ever-evolving display, which he estimates costs about $10,000 just to put up and take down each year. His seasonal electricity bill runs more than $1,500, and his power supply is maxed to its limit. Sepanek’s display is so spectacular that prospective neighbors are warned before moving onto the block.

“My lights have to be under full disclosure from the Realtor if they sell a house on the street—that’s how intense that is,” he says. “It’s gotten way out of hand. Now it’s an obsession.”

’Tis the holiday season, and families across the Valley are stuffing stockings and trimming trees. But there’s Christmas spirit and then there are those like Sepanek who march to the beat of a different little drummer boy. These decoration devotees get their jollies decking every inch of the halls. And the porch. And the yard. And the roof. “It’s more than just decorations. It’s who I am. It’s what I am,” Sepanek says. “I don’t have any hobbies. This is my hobby. I work, and I put up Christmas lights.”

The 12 Months of Christmas

A sheet of faux snow dusts the front yard of Chris Birkett’s Scottsdale home. The lawn is a sea of red, green and white lights, flashing to the beat of classic Christmas tunes. Cords of color stream down the exterior of the home, and a glittering castle crowns the roof.

“It’s like being in part of a movie when you are seeing it,” says Birkett, a 38-year-old DJ and father of two girls. “I love watching people’s faces and being able to create a family memory—an experience—for each and every one of those people … There’s no better feeling than to be part of something so awesome.”

Using computer-generated equipment to choreograph the lights with music and scenes from holiday movies, Birkett’s display rivals that of any major theme park—not surprising considering his system was designed for Disney.
In 1996 while visiting Disneyland, he was amazed by a computer-controlled light show, which at the time was a fairly new invention. He contacted the company that created the equipment and inquired about purchasing it for his property.

“They told me it was a commercial product and if I were to do it on a residence, it would cost like $32,000,” says Birkett. “I was like, ‘All right, when can you send it?’

“It was either that or I quit Christmas.”

Over the next few years, Birkett added four artificial snow machines, three bubble makers and more than 150,000 lights to his installation.

Because he also decorates for Halloween—transforming his property into a grandiose haunted house—he spends the entire month of November preparing for Christmas, toiling and tweaking 20 hours a day.

This year marks the 28th season he’s been staging the multimedia extravaganza, which he estimates has cost more than $100,000.

With the amount of time and money he devotes to the holidays, he’s fully aware some people think he’s a few jingle bells short of a full sleigh.

“I used to say we’re not really that crazy. But when I really start thinking about it and digging into it, maybe from the outside prospective, maybe it’s a little crazy,” he says. “It’s a little insane.”

Legendary Phoenix lightman Bernard Rix, 75, can relate to the Christmas compulsion.

“It’s in your blood,” says Rix. “You can’t stop it. It’s a disease. I don’t know the name of it, but it’s some kind of disease.”  For more than five decades, Rix poured everything he had into his over-the-top annual display, which for him was not just a seasonal endeavor.

“I did it literally all year long,” he says. “It was 12 months out of the year, time wise, making everything and putting it up.”

Rix, a grandfather of 16, began stringing up lights in the ’50s, an era when the only outdoor décor available were big blue and green bulbs. Over the years as the lights got more sophisticated, so did Rix’s display. At its peak he had hundreds of thousands of lights and hundreds of wooden figurines including trees, snowflakes, nutcrackers and candy canes, most of which he made by hand.

For more than five decades Bernard Rix and his twin brother, Bob, would compete for the best and brightest Christmas display. Photo featured in Jesse Rieser’s “Christmas in America” series. www.jesserieser.com.

For more than five decades Bernard Rix and his twin brother, Bob, would compete for the best and brightest Christmas display. Photo featured in Jesse Rieser’s “Christmas in America” series. www.jesserieser.com.

“I have no savings,” he says. “Everything I had went into lights and wood—buying it and painting it and cutting it out.” Each year Rix and his twin brother, Bob, would compete for the best and brightest. Families across the Valley made visiting the homes of the Rix brothers an annual tradition, some traveling by tour buses and limousines. Both won awards for their lights and were frequently featured on the news.

Sadly, the brothers’ homes won’t shine so bright this yuletide. Due to his age and health, Bernard for the first time in five decades won’t be going all out for Christmas. Bob, too, has retired his lights and resides in a care facility. Bob donated some of his artwork to Birkett, who will be displaying it on his property.

While Bernard still plans to put up a few lights, the presentation won’t live up to his reputation.
“It was something that was hard to give up … What’s sad is people will come to see the house, and it won’t be decorated like it used to be,” he says. “But I’m 75, and enough is enough.”

A Christmas Glory

What drives someone to devote themselves to decorations? That question led photographer and Arizona State University graduate Jesse Rieser to explore the culture of Christmas lights in his photography series “Christmas in America.” Documenting several Arizona light legends, including Rix and Sepanek, he discovered an interesting phenomenon among the Christmas crowd. “There’s a grain of salt of weirdness that comes with some of these folks,” he says. “Some of the people who partake in this really live it. It’s their identity.”

When Rieser started his project he was admittedly more cynical—assuming the decorations were ego driven or an example of people “keeping up with the Joneses.” However, he learned there is a spectrum of types who go all out for the holidays. For some it is an extension of their childhood; others consider it a creative outlet. But the thing they all have in common is a true love for Christmas.

“Really it’s very sincere. It’s this unique thing where they have this built-in stage once a year to be creative,” he says. “Folks put everything they have into this. It’s for the community. It’s for the kids.”

And in the Valley—where many people don’t even know their neighbors’ names—Christmas lights can unite a community, says Rieser.

For more than 15 years, the residents of Mesa’s West Natal Circle have experienced the sort of neighborly cheer only the holidays can bring. Each season all 14 homes in the cul-de-sac glimmer with scores of lights, decorations, and displays—each property uniquely garnished with its own theme.  

Lee Sepanek, known among his neighbors as “Christmas Lee,” festoons his property with more than 250,000 lights. Each year he estimates his electricity bill rises to $1,500.

Lee Sepanek, known among his neighbors as “Christmas Lee,” festoons his property with more than 250,000 lights. Each year he estimates his electricity bill rises to $1,500.

Most December evenings, the residents sit on their porches, some serving hot chocolate and roasting marshmallows by a bonfire, greeting the 4,000 to 5,000 visitors who tour the street each weekend.

“Everyone knows each other,” says Dorin Olson, who has lived on the circle for 11 years. “Pretty much every one is on board. People who move here, move here because they want to participate in the holidays.”

Any new residents to the cul-de-sac are initiated into the custom, although precious few have moved away over the years. Olson, who moved to Natal Circle partially because of the lights, says the reaction of visitors makes the season brighter for everyone on the block.

“For the people who walk by, it doesn’t matter who they are, it seems like everyone has a big smile on their face,” he says. “I think it brings back fond memories of childhood—that sense of believing when you were a little kid. I think it instills that in people for a few minutes.”

But while many neighbors enjoy the holiday hubbub, it takes only one Scrooge to spoil the season.

The Polar Excess

Eric Cyr’s Maricopa property is a marvelous milieu of 8-foot-tall nutcrackers, nine reindeer pulling a red sleigh, a 20-foot train, an oversized Santa plunging down the chimney and countless lights.

Cyr’s next-door neighbor Kristina Green knew she couldn’t compete with the ostentatious installation. So last year she hung a red-and-green sign bearing the word “ditto” on her roof with a flashing arrow pointing to Cyr’s property.
“‘Ditto’ says it all,” Cyr says with a smile.

The innocuous little sign quickly became a tourist attraction on the block. Hundreds showed up to see the homes, and local news outlets covered the story. Soon pictures of the display had gone viral, appearing on talk shows, national news programs and magazines across the world.

“It got so crazy,” says Cyr. “It was everywhere. I had no idea how big it was going to get.”

Cyr’s and Green’s lights illustrate a common neighborhood dilemma. How does someone live next to St. Nick, especially when they are having a blue Christmas?

While Green’s solution was playful—in fact the “ditto” sign was Cyr’s idea, and it was done in good fun—not all neighborhood conflicts end in good tidings.

In 2004, Christmas King Chris Birkett found himself living next to a homeowner who preferred more silent nights. The neighbor called the police and pressed charges against Birkett for “creating unreasonable noise to an individual knowingly,” stemming from his October haunted house. Birkett was ultimately prosecuted, convicted, fined and sentenced to two years probation.

“It’s weird to be the first man in the United States in America to be convicted for holiday spirit,” says Birkett. “Although a lot of people were on my side, I lost.”

That season when news broke of the charges, Birkett woke up to TV-station trucks lining his block. It became one of those absurd little stories—neighbors fighting over holiday displays—that became national news, written about in papers including the New York Times.

“My whole life changed,” Birkett says. “I almost wanted to hide under a rock. I didn’t want to talk. I felt violated.”
Eventually, Hollywood made a movie based loosely on Birkett’s experience: “Deck the Halls,” starring Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito, depicting a feud between two neighbors who battle over crazy Christmas displays. At the end of the film, DeVito and Broderick’s characters make peace and celebrate Christmas together—a Cinderella ending that did not mirror the real-life tale.

“I know for a fact it did not have a happy ending,” says Birkett. “We had to sign paperwork to say we had to stay away from each other.”

After his conviction, Birkett took his Christmas display to Schnepf Farms, which hosted it for several years. But the experience robbed him of some of his Christmas spirit. He didn’t come out of his house for two months and stayed out of the limelight for years.

Chris Birkett’s home, which he calls Winter Wonderland, features bubbles, falling snow and a 150,000-light computerized show. He also transforms his backyard pool into the Island of Misfit Toys.

Chris Birkett’s home, which he calls Winter Wonderland, features bubbles, falling snow and a 150,000-light computerized show. He also transforms his backyard pool into the Island of Misfit Toys.

Then one day, he turned to his wife and said, “Honey, let’s move. Let’s find new neighbors.”

They relocated just six blocks away, where the neighborhood seemed much jollier. Although it’s been almost 10 years since the incident, Birkett says he’s only recently rediscovered his love of the season.

“I’m embracing the fact that I really love the holidays,” he says. “This year I have that little-kid feeling again where I’ve been extremely excited about it.”

And like most ornament addicts, Birkett finds a sense of camaraderie with his fellow lightmen, including friend Lee Sepanek.

“We’re not in competition,” agrees Sepanek. “When you get to this level, you’re like in the club.”

As Birkett and Sepanek discussed this year’s additions to their respective displays, the conversation turned to their shared compulsion.

“You know there is something wrong with us,” Birkett said in a serious tone. “No normal person would go through what you and I go through.”

“Yeah,” Lee shrugged. “But it’s the good kind of wrong. If this is as wrong as we get, then it’s fine with me.”

Brighten Your Holidays

See these seasonal spectacles in person. The residential lights will be on display from dusk to at least 10 p.m. throughout December.

Lee Sepanek’s 250,000-Light Masterpiece 4415 E. Calle Tuberia, Phoenix

Chris Birkett’s Winter Wonderland 8414 E. Valley Vista Dr., Scottsdale

Eric Cyr and the Ditto House 43536 W. Sunland Dr., Maricopa

Christmas Cul-De-Sac West Natal Circle, near West Guadalupe and South Extension roads, Mesa

 To get festive without the fuss several companies throughout the Valley offer professional holiday decorations.

Holiday Lights Decorating, LLC 310 S. 29th St., Phoenix (602) 692-4668 or www.holidaylightsdecorating.com

Christmas Light Installation (480) 389-6404 or www.azchristmaslights.com

Christmas Light Decorators (480) 967-1122 or www.christmaslightdecorators.com