One Street, 16 Houses, 100,000 Christmas Lights. All Set to Music.
Deb and Terry Toews' house has 50,000 holiday lights synchronized to music. (Courtesy Scott Davis)
Deb and Terry Toews have been happily married for 26 years. They’re best friends, they say. And every year they try to envision an even brighter future -- for their front yard, that is.
They’ve spent many a Christmas season hanging up strands of decorative lights. They started off with 5,000 outdoor lights, then 10,000. In 2007, they synchronized the lights to music. Their suburban house became a big draw in the town of Clovis, just outside Fresno.
“Now we’re at 50,000 lights just in our yard,” says Terry. They could’ve added more this year, but they decided to amp it up in a different way -- by asking their neighbors to join in. They figured a few houses would participate, but they didn’t expect everyone on their street to sign up.
“I haven’t known my neighbors like this since I was a kid,” says Terry. He says people ask him how he got all the families to participate. “I don’t know. We just did.”
The result is Santa Claus Lane: 16 houses, 100,000 lights and an hour of synchronized music. The lights flash to the music, bounce from one house to the next, and even race around the cul-de-sac.
“At first I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it,” says neighbor Tina Navarro. “It actually came together perfectly, though. I think it looks really nice. Everyone has their own little touch on their lawn.”
Take Navarro. She dresses up like Princess Leia from "Star Wars" and passes out sweets. “Would you like a candy cane?” she shouts to a gaggle of kids walking by her house.
The Toews say they both gave up their vacation time to get the street ready for the holidays.
“I do the programming and Terry does all the manual building,” says Deb. It takes at least three hours to synchronize one minute of a song to the flashing colored lights. Deb spent about 200 hours synchronizing the entire spectacle, which she says is a "creative outlet."
Meanwhile, Terry set up command central on their front lawn. It looks like a tall gingerbread house on the outside, but inside hundreds of controllers power the mass of holiday lights.
“I laid awake nights before I went to sleep designing all of this and I’m not an electrician,” says Terry.
The Toews even set up a nonprofit called Clovis Festival of Lights to accept donations for the free nightly event. Neighbors also raise money for the production by selling pizza, popcorn and hot chocolate at a concession stand. And there’s a donation box to help out a local food pantry, Terry says.
All of the houses are wirelessly linked to a computer in the command center. Music is broadcast through a low frequency FM transmitter. Terry admits it’s all a little crazy. ("Crazy fun," he says.) And it makes people happy.
He says a woman brought her mother to see the Christmas lights just at his house a couple of years ago. Her mom had Alzheimer’s disease and was feeling down -- but the lights put a smile on her face.
“That year she sent us a letter," Terry says. "Her mom had passed away, but she thanked us for that one night because she saw a whole different person in her mom.”
The next Christmas, the daughter returned alone.
“I’m not usually an emotional person, but that really hit me,"Terry says. That, "and just the smile on kids’ faces.“
"It’s just wonderful. I guess I’m just a little kid at heart, too. I love the lights.”
And he’s not the only one. A young man named Alex Michalski rang the Toews' doorbell a few weeks ago and asked if they could help him out. All he wanted for Christmas was to propose to his girlfriend Danielle Ybarra. Deb told him of course they could help.
The showpiece on the Toews' lawn is a tall, metal Christmas tree with hundreds of lights that can be programmed to form images or words. It’s kind of like a billboard in Times Square. Deb and Alex decided to program the proposal on the tree along with a favorite song, Mariah Carey’s "All I Want for Christmas is You."
“After he left, me and my daughter were crying because it was just the sweetest thing,” Deb says. “And he was so excited.”
The plan went off without a hitch. Alex brought Danielle to Santa Claus Lane one recent Friday. After the Mariah Carey song ended, he got down on his knees. The lights on the tree flashed “Danielle, will you marry me?”
Friends and family started to cheer, and Danielle nodded yes.
“I love this woman and I want to be with her the rest of my life,” says Michalski.
Christmas is magical, says Terry, and you never know what the lights might inspire.