For decades, Jim and Ann Poulos have spent months of their lives providing a Christmas spectacle of lights.
The homemade spectacle now has its own Facebook page thanks to the younger generation of Pouloses.“I bet we have three-quarters of a million people driving by here every season,” said Jim Poulos. “It touches so many people’s hearts, and that’s why we do it.” For many years the couple enjoyed minor celebrity on the Outer Banks for their elaborate lights with locals making the house part of their holiday season tour of neighborhoods. Then in 2005, famous weatherman Al Roker and the “Today” show featured the Poulos house in a live broadcast and suddenly, its annual Christmas display was famous. The following year, the house was a star in HGTV’s “Over the Top Holiday” program.
“It’s been on TV every year ever since then,” Poulos said. This year a local broadcaster has picked up the story and plans to run a segment on its local channel.
The tradition of Christmas lighting in the U.S. began in earnest in the 1920s, when electric lighting became affordable and safe. According to an article published Dec. 2012 in Popular Mechanics magazine, the first public outdoor electric display was done in California in 1920. The practice nationwide ebbed and flowed over the decades, depending on the economy, wars and popular trends, but the invention of the efficient mini-lights in 1970 revolutionized Christmas lighting. Today, holiday décor has become high art – even highly competitive – in many neighborhoods across the country.
Inspired by the modest Christmas lights they remember from their childhood, the couple first put up a few strings of lights in 1969, the year they were married.
“We started decorating the house basically for our children,” Poulos, 64, said, “just like our mommy and daddy did for us.”
But to Poulos, the satisfaction is in the sharing of the season with the community, and “spreading the joy to everyone.”
Last year alone, more than 480,000 people signed the guest book, he said, and that’s only counting the ones who got out of their vehicle and took the time to find and sign the book. Folks have visited from as far away as Germany, and a woman from Sweden has come for three years in a row. One woman from Seattle saw the house and then decided to fly out her entire family from Washington to see it.
“When I’m creating out here, I try to touch all forms of life,” he said, adding that the display includes a menorah and a bear with a dreidel in recognition of Hanukkah.
Every season from the beginning, the couple would add more lights, many of which were acquired the previous year in after-Christmas sales. Then in 1977, Poulos recalled, the retail company he was working for at the time decided to stop selling Christmas lights, and offered the remaining inventory to employees. He went home that night with about 30 boxes each holding 25-string lights.
Soon their “nice home” in Virginia Beach was completely lit up. Two years later, the couple, owners of a landscaping company, moved to Chowan Street in Kill Devil Hills.
“In 1979, there were not many people here on the Outer Banks,” he said. We lit the house and you could actually see the glow of the lights when coming across the Wright Memorial Bridge.
“Think of it – back then, it was totally dark down here. No one else was lighting at that time because of the energy crisis.” Friends of their three children were impressed and told their parents, and soon, people started driving past to see for themselves.
When the family moved in 1981 to their current house at the end of Ocean Acres Drive in Kill Devil Hills, there was a lot more space to fill. There were plenty of lights to illuminate the house, Poulos said, but the only yard decoration they had then was one nativity, one reindeer and sleigh, and one Santa Claus. Those original decorations are still used every year, but now they are just some of the hundreds displayed in the Poulos yard, along the driveway and fences, and hanging between and from trees. He said he is vigilant about safety, and keeps a close eye on the electric circuitry.
“I’m always on eBay looking for something new for next year,” he said.
Over the years, neighbors, friends and numerous out-of town visitors all have contributed to the effort. For instance, the three dolphins displayed on the hill of the yard were donated from a woman in Kitty Hawk. The Christmas tree in the living room had been left anonymously in their driveway on a July Fourth weekend. Although he declined to be specific, Poulos said that donations have funded nearly all the costs for power with any leftover going back into supplies.
“Actually, my power bill has been going down the last few years,” he said, “but the maintenance has been astronomical.”
So far this year, he said he has spent $1,500 replacing lights – which today probably total about one million. Three years ago, he spent $3,500 to replace all the incandescent lights with LED lights that emit a crisper light.
“The community has brought us so much of the stuff,” Poulos said. “I owe so much of it to them. There’s no way it could have grown to the size it is, because I don’t have that much money.”
Depending on weather and hurricane predictions, the couple will typically start decorating in August and they leave the display up until January 6. According to the Poulos family, they plan to continue the celebration “as long as their health allows.”
“Thanksgiving is the grand opening,” Poulos said, adding there is no dramatic unveiling. “We just do it. After we eat our Thanksgiving dinner, we say, ‘OK, it’s time, and [we notice that] people are already riding by to see if the lights are on.”♦
Catherine Kozak is a full-time, free-lance writer who has been covering the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head, where she enjoys running after sunset and strolling the deserted beach in the off-season.