Living Christmas Tree

And how at least one of them worked

Once upon a time, there was a little girl whose father worked on a farm with hardly a tree in sight and about twelve miles from the middle of nowhere. Her family was poor and lived in the farmer’s basement. One Christmas they could not afford a tree, so the father made a board to hold one string of Christmas lights and displayed it on the farmer’s mantle. The little girl and her brother were allowed to go upstairs to the farmer’s living room to sit on the couch and look at the lights as long as they were very, very good and didn’t make any noise. The little girl’s name was Kathy.

… Fast forward 40 years …

It may be one of the oldest light controllers in the country. Built in 1987, used until 1995, warehoused for three years, resurrected in 1998 and now the old box is still running strong in 2009.
Kathy and Rich Barnhart tell the story like a couple of proud parents.

Living Christmas Tree master control
Living Christmas Tree master control

They saw their first living Christmas tree in the late ‘70’s in a church in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was controlled by lots of individual light switches and could change colors one row at a time. The choir stood on the platform tiers of the cone shaped tree and sang their hearts out. They did a reading of “This Tree, That Tree” and the embedded cross lit up. It was wonderful, it was beautiful. Kathy Barnhart cried.

They moved to Lynchburg, Virginia and Rich Barnhart began teaching at Liberty University. Thomas Road Baptist Church (connected with the university) also had an electrified living Christmas tree like the one seen in Knoxville. It was 30 feet tall, made of steel I-beams to hold all the choir members, wrapped in chicken wire, covered with artificial greenery and had lots of lights controlled by plenty of individual light switches. It was a very impressive structure.

The administrators of the living Christmas tree had heard of a church in Buffalo using a computer to control the tree lights. A committee went to investigate and returned with wonderful tales of what computers could do. Could their church do the same thing? Maybe better, bigger and faster? They asked Rich to figure it out and make it happen.

The electronics staff at Liberty University designed and built a control box to handle all the lights. Standing five feet tall, it was nicknamed the “blue refrigerator.” The living Christmas tree was reworked and each layer was strung with five colors of lights in different sections. The computer to control everything had one 5 1/4” floppy drive holding DOS 3.1, Turbo Pascal and programs for an hour’s performance. This was bloody cutting edge technology.

Rich wrote the first light-control program as a menu of “bars up, bars down, columns right, snowflakes down,” and so on. The living Christmas tree operator selected the color and pattern on the fly and kept time to the music by tapping a key on the computer keyboard. It ended up being a different show every night because the operator would accidentally hit red instead of blue, or columns instead of rows. The audience loved the end result, but it wasn’t always satisfactory to the powers that be.

As luck would have it, Rich was taking a class in computer compiler construction at Virginia Tech and his homework was to design a new computer language and write the necessary compiler. The other people in the class were from General Electric and chose to control robot arms and assembly lines. Rich wanted to control the lights on a living Christmas tree and designed the Christmas Tree Control Language or CTCL for short.
CTCL was based on Pascal, which was all the rage in colleges in 1987. Each lighting program consisted of two parts, the definition of “structures” (groups of light strings such as rows, columns, diagonals, etc.) and the program logic. Procedures were used where different color combinations could be passed in as parameters. Looping and branching as well as limited arithmetic was also available.

The next Christmas Rich had a group of students at Liberty University eager to help. Using the newly created CTCL fully in control of the blue refrigerator, each piece of music became part of a living Christmas tree light show with its own personality and style. Some of the shows were wonderful and some was so bad you couldn’t tell where the second measure started in the music, but it got the job done.

Every year, the choir director would share videos of living Christmas trees from other churches. It didn’t take long to see they were copying our shows. We accepted it as a compliment and were flattered.

Barnhart Controller
Barnhart Controller

By 1994, things had become quite sophisticated and the programming was really getting to the point of being good. “Lights, camera, action” meant the living tree with the choir came to life at full volume while Kathy was running all 50,000 lights through the computer console and blue refrigerator in front of 3,000 people–really heady stuff. The audience would cheer, clap and stand on the benches, just like a rock concert. Kathy cried.
Rich and Kathy left Liberty University and moved 2,800 miles to the west coast. The living Christmas tree was left in the hands of one of Rich’s former students. He changed the hardware from PC to Macintosh and started using professional light dimmer packs. The old blue refrigerator languished in a warehouse for three years until Rich and Kathy received an email saying it was going to be tossed in the dumpster. They jumped on a plane and went after it. They hauled the blue refrigerator to a nearby moving company and shipped it home. After some repairs and a total rebuild of the computer interface (decoders, latches, shift registers, 24-pin sockets and a whole fistful of chips) the blue refrigerator was ready to control the lights again.

In 1998 Rich and Kathy built a 12 foot tree outside their house with scrap lumber and bought 100 multi-color mini-light strings on sale for 85 cents each. Then they spent countless hours pulling out and re-inserting all the bulbs to make solid color strings and wired them into their new tree. Rich also ordered a Ramsey FM transmitter kit to broadcast the music at 0.1 watts so people could hear it on their car radio. In those early days some folks had trouble finding the station because of their analog radio dials and we didn’t exactly have the strongest signal. Today some have trouble because the station isn’t listed on their satellite radio’s computer menu.
One night a lady stopped to watch the lights. Rich went up to the car and told her to turn on the radio. After a couple of minutes, she jumped out and came running saying “They go with the music! I’ve never seen anything like it! My husband has to see this; he’s a reporter.” So Rich and Kathy ended up in the newspaper and on TV. Back then nobody had ever seen such a thing in the area. The kids were dancing on the lawn for the sheer joy of it all.

In 2002, they moved to Indiana. Their new display had grown to a 16’ tall tree plus the star topper. Rich and Kathy also decorated all the bushes and trees up and down the driveway, double strung the fence, hung “starflakes” up in the trees as well as wreaths in the windows and connected it all to the blue refrigerator controller. Rich again rebuilt the broken circuit boards, added new ones and rewrote the whole Christmas Tree Control Language in C++ to run under Linux. With gigabytes of memory and faster processing, it seemed miraculous to operate.

Then the video of Carson Williams’ house near Dayton, Ohio went viral on the Internet. It was stopping traffic with TSO’s “Wizards in Winter.” Every student that Rich had ever taught emailed him a copy of the video and the email box overflowed for days. Finally Rich said, “We can do that!” Three days later Rich and Kathy were doing “Wizards” in six colors. Their greatest compliment was when Kathy delivered cookies to some 70-year-old friends and found them giggling as they watched the lights and listened to heavy metal on the radio.

Now, two jobs later Rich and Kathy live on the western outskirts of Marion, Indiana in the middle of corn and soybean fields in an old two-story farmhouse. The lawn has been graveled for parking; they have a dedicated 30-amp circuit just for the Christmas lights and a barn to store all the decorations after Christmas. The display can be seen two miles away.

They’re still using the blue refrigerator controller with the same triacs and radio transmitter. Last fall the local paper did a half-page story about their display and they had over 500 cars full of people stop by to enjoy the show.

In late October they’ll set posts alongside the parking lot to hang lights, put up spiral trees and have a little tree choir. This year they’ll outline the windows and put up some musical notes and a staff on the side of the house. They’ll hang the “starflakes” as well as many odds and ends from various after-Christmas sales and connect it all to the blue refrigerator. We can’t wait!

Random notes directly from the Barnharts:

Our program runs from 6:00 until 9:00. After that, we run a “Quiet Christmas”– quiet music and calm lights for considering the true meaning of Christmas. It’s not unusual to see only one car left in the lot with a tired mom in the front seat listening to the music and watching the lights while a child is asleep in the backseat.

We have about 16,000 lights. Our light bill runs less than $100 above normal, but our six colors are never on all at once; they blink.

“There are no Frosties, Santas or Rudolphs, just the old, old story. We honor our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with no apologies. Our brochures answer the usual questions (how tall is the tree? how many lights?) and tell something about Christmas (who was the real “Santa Claus”?) We also tell the good news that Jesus came to Earth to die for our sins, that He rose again and ascended into Heaven. He gives every person the opportunity to receive Him and become a child of God. We have much to celebrate.”

This article was included in the October 2009 issue of PlanetChristmas Magazine.

By Rich and Kathy Barnhart

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