Whether it’s a single strand hanging above a front door or a sensational spectacle illuminating an entire neighborhood, there’s a special magic in the twinkling of Christmas lights that continues to capture hearts and lift spirits. Inspired by her own family’s tradition of driving around Sioux Falls, South Dakota, looking at Christmas lights, photographer Danelle Manthey took it upon herself to document some of that modern-day magic in her new photo book, American Christmas.
“Once I started photographing people and getting their stories, I felt like I had something special,” the now New York-based photographer, who began her cross-country light tour in 2003, tells Houstonia.
The book features images from lawns across the country, highlighting both the extraordinary displays of lighting and sculpture and the dedicated, self-taught experts behind them, including Cypress resident and lighting extraordinaire Ryan Johnson.
“The photo in the book was his idea,” Manthey recalls. “I love the magic of two small sisters playing with fairy lights.”
It was through Johnson’s connections within the area Christmas lighting network (that’s right folks, there’s a local network of Christmas magic makers) that the photographer met Katy resident James “JD” Schuck.
“JD is amazing,” she says. “He’s made most of the pieces in the display himself, and it’s all synced to music. My photo doesn’t do it justice; it’s pretty spectacular.”
Learning there’s a Christmas lighting network shouldn’t really shock any Houstonian, as festively decorated homes are commonplace in the Bayou City area. Many of these designers take their personal gifts to those on the hunt for a little holiday magic quite seriously.
Just ask Schuck. His "Christmas Katy" season starts the moment the turkey is cleared from the Thanksgiving table, and he graciously took the time to tell us all about it.
When did your passion for decorating with Christmas lights begin, and what inspired you to take it to the extraordinary level that you have?
It started in 2005 when I saw the first musically synced display. This was called “Christmas Lights Gone Wild,” and is still on YouTube. I knew I could do that, and, sure enough, that was the start of it all for me. By Christmas of 2006, I was hooked. I have not gone as high tech as some displays and like to stay in the middle of the technology, which makes my display more old-school.
Do you have the same setup each year, or do you prefer to redesign your lights and decorations?
This is our 14th year, and while our theme remains true, we continually modify the display. Lights continue to improve, as do the computers, so it is a never-ending hobby. It takes me 10 hours now to program one minute of music into a show. We have over 9,000 channels, which takes up 34 tracks of programming, using a combination of 24 older and newer computers across four networks and 42 universes.
This year, we replaced all our gingerbread people in our trim display, which was very time consuming. Each is painted and decorated before getting hot glued to the gingerbread trim. Additionally, I built new light frames around the windows and across the fascia. I put an LED ribbon inside of white plumber's flex pipe which is shaped to the window arches. We are a craft/techno display. You do not buy our items off the shelf—you have to imagine, assemble, test, and redo as you go.
Do you see a lot of visitors drive by to view your display during the holidays? If so, how have your neighbors reacted to the extra dose of Christmas spirit?
We start up each year on Thanksgiving night. Our neighbors have been great. Some are actually in the show as they receive a signal from our house that commands the lights in their yard, which sync up with us. Closer to Christmas we can get over 400 cars a night, so traffic can get a little heavy at times, but overall, everyone has enjoyed the show. We have 20 songs and a full hour of different looks and sounds.
We have many families that have made coming by each year a tradition and they often try to figure out what we did new or different each year. This year we have a hidden gingerbread man that is not where the others are. He is in plain sight, but you have to look pretty hard to find him.
What was your initial thought when Danelle Manthey contacted you about photographing your lights? What was the whole experience like?
We have had newspaper and television crews out to photograph and film our display, so this was not totally uncommon. What was different was Danelle was using film format and was going to do a more technical, challenging approach, which we were happy to be a part of. It has been several years since she photographed. It was fun to see the pictures and reflect back on what is different now versus when she photographed.
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting into Christmas light art?
Build it the way you want it to look. Put your touch on it. Look around and see what you can use and modify it for your display. Keep in mind the weather, and that means rain is not your friend. Be sure to waterproof and buy lots of hot glue sticks. If you’re not having fun doing it, do something else.
American Christmas is available for $52.13 on Amazon.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.