The holiday season always has great television shows like Crazy Christmas lights, Christmas Gone Wild, The Great Christmas Light Fight… all help to reinforce to our friends and family that we’re not the only ones to have a hobby that borders on obsession.
Reflecting on Christmas and the hours spent outside assembling, testing and managing my display, I came to realize that geographic location on our planet brings unique changes. Whenever I’m surfing the web or watching those shows looking for ideas I am often jealous to see others working on their displays in the sunshine and wearing t-shirts. My wife routinely points out it must be easy not to have to wear gloves, a snowmobile suit and big boots to hang lights.
In my early years of decorating I would have agreed that wearing sneakers and a t-shirt to make 40 trips up and down a ladder would be simple compared to working in -30 C (-22 F) temperatures. Cracked wire, exploding bulbs and shattered plastic are terms often in my vocabulary during the very cold holiday season. Solder, crimps, strippers and electrical tape make up my repair arsenal.
The Christmas light shows on TV made me realize that cold temperatures and piles of snow might not be all that bad. It seems like squirrels, pouring rain and intense heat are just a few of the things that must wreak havoc with displays in warm weather climates. Extreme cold and snow might not sound like fun but it keeps the rodents and rain at bay.
The good news is it’s always dark by 4:30 pm so you can show off your display in the late afternoon. We always have a white Christmas and the snow is a great cover for the wire and stakes ensuring great pictures. The not-so-good news is snow can be a challenge and the cold limits your displays viewing pleasure from the inside of a heated vehicle.
Success in the extreme cold can be achieved with some planning and patience. Next year’s display needs to be packed away and stored in a logical manner in which it will go back up. In other words, the last strings that go up need to be the first strings that come down and packed away. Next year you won’t have the luxury to lay out miles of cords around the yard so you can pick through what is needed.
In the extreme cold when working outside you only have about 3-5 minutes with a string of lights to manipulate, hang and plug them in. Longer than that risks cracking sockets or snapping off plug ends.
When I first started with this obsession I used to transfer boxloads of light strings from the storage shed into my heated house. I’d take a couple of strings and lay them out in the entrance for an hour before taking them outside to hang. This became a real challenge when hanging the roof lights but the patience came in with the rest of the family having to put up with an entrance full of lights and the smell of warming plastic. Mini-lights sure do open your eyes when stepped on in sock feet! I now have the luxury of large heated double car garage for staging the lights.
Cold weather display deployment includes watching the local weather channel closely, especially when needing to set up on the roof. Chilly nights bring frost covered shingles with treacherous footing as they begin to warm in the morning sun. Not quite so weather critical is doing the ground work but rest assured you still get cold.
I have a two-story home and one of the first things installed when I moved in preparation for my display was a plate and tie off point on my highest roof peak. Early in the fall I attach a long lanyard and leave it coiled in the area where I stand my ladder. This lanyard gets attached to my five-point body harness whenever I’m on my roof. It’s a bit of a pain, does limit my movement and is often uncomfortable but it did save me from being part of my neighbours landscape a couple of years ago when I slipped as the snow broke away from my roof. Thankfully I grabbed hold of my lanyard just before I slipped off the roof edge and didn’t need to test the strength or positioning of my harness.
The other cold weather tools that have become invaluable on the roof are a soft bristle push broom and soft soled winter boots. Brushing off the frost or light snow ensures good contact and grip for the boots.
Heavy and drifting snow needs to be considered in the overall. Twenty years ago my display included ma
y plywood figures showing off my ability to draw and paint. Over the years I have been replacing these figures with hand built welded wire frames covered with lights and garland. Not only does the snow and wind blow through them but it also eliminates increased weight on the roof created by drifted snow and the need to continually shovel the white stuff away from the cut out so it can be seen.
With lights at ground level or on the roof you need to plan for the average depth of snow and build accordingly. Obviously stringing a grid of lights on the front lawn or following the roof lines is not a practical option for deep snow.
“Snow management” is the term I coined for the daily ritual of keeping my display at prime viewing enjoyment. Two tools that have proven invaluable is a gas-powered leaf blower and an extendable handle 16’ brush. The advantage to the cold is that most of the snow is light and easily blown or brushed away if it doesn’t get a few days to harden up or drift.
The leaf blower is the perfect tool for blowing off trees, lights, rails and garland without causing damage or electrical issues. The key to using a leaf blower is to be sure to blow the snow away from the bases of the decorations right from the start so the snow will continue to have a place to go as it accumulates. Consideration needs to be given to your neighbours not to be running the leaf blower in the early morning or late evening hours. I am sure they have enough issues with the traffic on your street without adding more aggravation of waking them up. I like to use the leaf blower in the late afternoon when my display first lights up as it provides an opportunity to look for bad lights or display failures.
A light and long extendable handle with a brush secured to the end helps to brush the snow off floods and roof displays without having to stand up or climb a ladder. It’s also a lot quieter than the leaf blower.
Despite the hours of work, I only run the Christmas display for the month of December. I also have a Halloween display and haunted house so by the time the New Year rolls in I’ve been at it full time for several months.
Tear down of the display needs to be done very carefully. Some years I’m lucky and we get a few days of temps above -20 C (-4F). Again, keeping an eye on the local weather channel helps to plan for the best days. Leaving my display up for months is not an option as the harshest part of winter has not even occurred by Christmas.
I have also learned over the years to refrain from help offered by friends or family during tear down. As much as I appreciate the gesture my experience has been that I will need to deal with too many repairs next Spring associated with cracked wires and lights. Others tend to get the lights down in too much of a hurry especially if their fingers and toes are numb with the cold. My wife tells me I worry too much and it’s not that big of a deal. We disagree.
To kick it up a notch in Northern Alberta, cold temperatures and snow are part of the challenge. Quite often people stop by and drop off a Tim Horton’s gift card or hot coffee when they see me out braving the elements just to put a smile on their kids face. I don’t think others that are not part of this insanity understand that we get more out of the process and display than they will ever comprehend. I wonder if/when decorating becomes like real work will we quit doing it?
Who is Marty Belisle? He’s 55 years young in Cold Lake, Alberta Canada. It’s a small community three hours North of Edmonton. He’s been decorating for 26 years, no matter how cold it is outside. At last check, he had a static and animated musical display, 85,000 lights with RGB. He still loves putting it all together for others to enjoy. Check it out on YouTube by searching for Marty’s Christmas in Cold Lake.
This article was included in the November 2016 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.
By Marty Belisle