Clark W. Griswold, eat your heart out — a family in Sanilac County’s Greenleaf Township has a holiday light display that puts all others to shame, including that of the fictional, overachiever from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”.
“Nicol’s Christmas Light Extravaganza” is located at 6250 Germania Road, east of Cass City about halfway between M-53 and M-19 and 4 miles south of the Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park.
The work of Joel and Jaime Nicol (with a bit of extra Christmas spirit and excitement provided by their children, Justin, 4, and Jenna, 2), the display is truly something to behold — and recent snows and frigid temps only add to the experience.
But to call it a “display” is not doing Nicol’s Christmas Light Extravaganza justice.
It’s more akin to seeing a fireworks display, or sitting front row at a visually stunning rock concert, as more than 160,000 lights dazzle and dance to the beat of a 45-minute playlist sure to make the smallest of hearts grow three sizes any day.
“I work up in Pigeon…I got people that live in Pigeon, Kinde, Elkton, Port Austin…they come all the way down to see it,” said Kurt Puterbaugh.
Puterbaugh, along with wife, Cari Puterbaugh, and their two-year-old son, braved below-zero windchills and iced-over roads to enjoy the show earlier this week. They live about three miles away.
“We come out every year,” Kurt Puterbaugh said. “It’s been a tradition since they used to do it up the road.”
Puterbaugh referred to the former location of what has become Nicol’s Christmas Light Extravaganza, the parents of Joel Nicol.
About 30 years ago, Joel Nicol’s parents — John and Gayle Nicol — started building out their Christmas display on Robinson Road. Joel — who would’ve been about five years old — helped, along with his older brother and younger sister.
“We never really had traditional Thanksgivings,” Gayle Nicol said. “We would spend our Thanksgivings putting up lights and then go out to eat.”
But as the Nicol clan grew older, doing stuff like going away to college, the elders “were losing their helpers.”
Gayle Nicol told The Advertiser that they stopped doing the display when they were “only” at about 100,000 lights.
Bitten by the Christmas light bug, however, Joel Nicol picked up the tradition with his wife, Jaime Nicol, when they moved to their current home on Germania Road.
“And so we moved everything down here — my parents still help,” Joel Nicol said. “They still enjoy being involved.”
Of course, the big question is: how does it all come together?
The first thing to know is that the lights are like any other lights sold by retailers like Walmart.
And, yes, that means replacing bulbs every year. This year, it was about 20,000 bulbs.
The “brain” of the system is a laptop computer equipped with a software program called Light-O-Rama. The “pro” version is available for about $200.
During the other 10 months of the year, Joel Nicol uses the program to design the show (when not attending the annual Christmas Expo, billed as “the largest event dedicated to holiday decorating”).
By using up to 400 separate channels, or “tracks,” the process is similar to creating a song or video.
In simplest terms, Nicol uses a computer to make one set of lights light up exactly at the right moment.
Or many sets of lights light up at exactly the right moment.
Or no sets of lights light up at exactly the right moment.
Point is, the possibilities are almost limitless for how the lights can be controlled. (Story continues below video)
Light-O-Rama allows Nicol to see a virtual version of what the show will look like when installed — which means when others are thinking beach blankets and sunscreen in the middle of summer, Nicol might be thinking flashing candy canes and Christmas trees.
And he’s always looking to add something new every year.
Puterbaugh said part of the fun, in fact, is trying to find what’s different about Nicol’s Christmas Light Extravaganza from year-to-year.
Sometimes, Nicol builds new features for the show — a 21-foot tall snowman made of steel, for example.
Other times, he gets an idea like the new 50-foot lighted tree that seems to be the centerpiece of the show (complete with about 9,000 lights alone).
With lights checked and the show programmed, the Nicols take to setting everything up in late October — the Nicol’s yard and house serving as a kind of blank canvas.
Light strands are connected using normal plugs.
Plugs are connected to boxes, which are essentially connected to the laptop using special cables similar to the kind used to connect computers to the Internet via Ethernet or other telephone systems.
The final touch is the music.
While the laptop tells the lights what to do, it also sends a signal to a FM signal transmitter that allows for visitors to tune in (via 92.9 FM) on their vehicle sound systems and hear the music from the warm, comfy confines of their cars, trucks, or SUVs. Earlier this week, the transmission could be picked up more than a half-mile away.
Songs are handpicked by Nicol and based on numerous factors, such as how well-suited they are for the show and popularity (the popular song “Let It Go” from Disney’s “Frozen” movie is in the middle of this year’s show).
Once the 45-minute show begins (5:15 p.m. – 10:30 p.m., every night through Dec. 31), the computer, the software, the lights, the changing of the lights, the lugging all of the stuff to and from the basement, the time spent at the Christmas Expo, the money spent, and the 30 years of experience all seems to come together in an impressive show that seems like a kind of art.
However, Nicol — whose family owns Nicol & Sons, an excavating business — humbly calls it more of a “hobby” than anything else and that he gets enough satisfaction from just knowing that up to 40 vehicles are lined up to see his work (at peak times).
Jaime Nicol, however, takes a different approach.
“I enjoy the whole aspect of it,” she said. “The best part for me is going out and talking to people.
“I get on my gear, I have a yellow vest for safety, a light, and I have a basket of candy canes and I go out and just talk to people…find out where they’re from, talk about their Christmas, and just meet people.
“I actually meet neighbors I’ve never met before,” she said. “I tell people at the road that it’s the best part of the job — going out and talking to people.”
When the season is over, everything comes down in about two days, and is stashed away in the family basement until the next November, per Nicol family tradition.
“I have a big basement,” Nicol says with a smile.
And though the decorations may be stashed away, thoughts of the Nicol Christmas Light Extravaganza seem a bit omnipresent.
“I’ll go to Walmart in Bad Axe and write a check and someone will see my name and ask me about the Christmas display,” Gayle Nicol said.
Though she said she enjoys that aspect of it, her son says it does put a bit of pressure on him to continue upping the game of the event.
“I’m starting on next year’s already,” Joel Nicol said earlier this week with a very un-Grinchy grin.
For additional information and to read what others are saying about Nicol’s Christmas Light Extravaganza, check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NicolsChristmasLightExtravaganza
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org