John Schatzschneider does it to keep Christ in Christmas and to dazzle the kids.
Stephanie Raffa does it for the joy of seeing other people enjoy it.
Both spend weeks putting up over-the-top holiday lighting displays for the pleasure of total strangers, he in Harrington, she in Clayton.
They are some of the hundreds of Delaware home decorators whose outdoor displays light up cold winter nights as the year winds down, and these two homes should be must-see stops on any Delaware light lovers’ personal tour.
If you’re among the many who love, love, love the tradition, but also wonder why anyone would go to all that trouble, Schatzschneider and Raffa can offer some answers about why they avoid a measured approach in decking the house. And porch. And windows. And lawn. And driveway. And gardens. And trees. And roof.
They approached their holiday passion differently.
He jumped in to swim with the sharks. She started small seven years ago and has just kept building.
Schatzschneider, an electrician by trade, spent most of his life working seven days a week, including as a boy on the family farm. As he was coming to the end of his career, he decided he needed a hobby.
He had started following holiday lighting maestro Tom Betgeorge of California on Youtube.Betgeorge is one of the lighting designers who uses computer-controlled RGB pixel lighting that can create up to 100,000 colors and also make lights dance in sync with music.
“We gotta do this,” he told his wife, Rhonda.
But year after year passed and somehow he never had time. Then last March he sold his business.
“You don’t have any excuse now,” Rhonda told him.
Schatzschneider had come to realize that BetGeorge was part of a national community devoted to setting up those kinds of light displays, He decided to attend one of their shows in Biloxi, Miss.
“I didn’t know a soul,” he said. “I felt like a duck out of water.”
He and Rhonda were waiting for one of the sessions to start when he noticed a young couple behind them.
He went to introduce himself and saw that the man’s name tag said “instructor,” which surprised Schatzschneider, because the man seemed so young.
He was only 19, but Andrew Wilhelm was already making a name for himself and for his company, Tangled Lights Productions. He’d appeared in several television competitions and runs his own YouTube channel.
Wilhelm later told Schatzschneider that he had just said to his sister, “I wonder who the Lord is going to send this year for me to help” when Schatzschneider sat down and said hello.
“I just get chills about that,” Schatzschneider said. “It was definitely a blessing from the Lord to put us together.”
They hit it off, and Wilhelm came to Delaware for three days last year to help Schatzschneider set up his first display at his home at 705 Andrewville Road in Harrington.
They worked for 42 hours to put everything together, partly because Schatzschneider was running behind, with good reason. His mother had just died, and he had needed knee surgery.
The first year the Schatzschneiders put out 17,000 lights, which Wilhelm told him was the level most people reach at about five years.
This year they have about 37,000 lights, which is the level most people reach at eight or nine years, Schatzschneider has been told.
Next year, he said, he hopes to have 50,000-60,000 lights.
A $15,000 manger scene
He figures he spent about $40,000 for that first set-up.
The Lord is still steering his hand, he said.
For 2023 he wanted to add a manger scene, but when he found the perfect set, it was $15,000.
“I went, ‘Wow, Lord. That’s a big that’s a big undertaking there. I know you’re gonna help me out a little bit,” Schatzschneider said.
He’s also a real estate agent who dabbles a bit in that on the side. At the time, he had a property listed and a few days after finding the manger set, he got a call from a man who wanted to see the property.
As it turned out, the man wanted to buy it and also wanted to sell his own place, which he did through Schatzschneider.
“It was the only time I ever did a double like that,” Schatzschneider said. “The commission was exactly $15,200.”
He bought the manger set and built a manger out of cedar to house it.
The scene figures prominently in this year’s routine, which includes five songs.
The manger scene stars in the third song as a recording of Schatzschneider and Rhonda tells the story of Jesus’s birth, ending with the song “Mary, Did You Know?”
Schatzschneider and Wilhelm talk frequently. Schatzschneider has been to Texas to help Wilhelm set up, and Wilhelm has come back to help in Delaware.
This year, Schatzschneider and Rhonda started getting the scenes together in August. After dinner, they’d go out to shed and push the plastic lighting strips into the various forms.
The light show started Thanksgiving night and will run through Jan. 6.
Schatzschneider usually turns the lights on at 6 p.m., but if he looks out and sees a lot of cars lined up earlier, he’ll flip them on early. The shows stop at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.
Next year, he hopes to add five more songs and may alternate the shows each night.
Schatzschneider has a donation box attached to his front gate. All donations go to the Harrington Parks and Recreation Department to provide scholarships for children whose families can’t afford the fees.
Helping those kids participate in town fun and offering the holiday lights are his way of giving back, he said.
“You know, a lot of people go out and buy $40,000 campers. They go out and buy boats. And when they do, they go enjoy it for themselves, and they all depreciate,” Schatzschneider said. “I spend this money to give enjoyment to the community, and that’s what gives me my reward.
“I look outside and I see 10, 15 cars sitting out in front and I hear kids yelling and laughing, and that is the drive to do it.”
Stephane Raffa slipped into the holiday madness in 2016 when she put out a few things at her home at 823 Cold Water Drive in Clayton.
“Then each year, we just built on it,” she said.
This year, it took her, her husband Vinnie and their oldest daughter nearly two months to put everything out.
The 2023 scene includes music and dancing lights and several places where visitors can stop to take photos.
“We tried to make it a little interactive,” Raffa said. “We painted boards with cut-outs in them so people can come up and put their faces in them and take pictures. And we have a sleigh and reindeer in our driveway where the kids can get in the sleigh and take pictures there, too.”
It’s really more her project and her husband of 16 years and her kids — 13, 11 and 8 — humor her, she said.
That’s fortunate, because she says there is no way she could do it without their help, especially her husband running power to all the pieces.
She picks up the decor at various places, including Home Depot, Walmart and Facebook marketplace.
Raffa has even gotten creative and made trees out of wooden pallets, partly to keep their display a little more unique than others nearby.
Her favorite pieces in the yard are two angels she built herself as a tribute to her parents, who have died.
She encourages visitors to drive through the Clayton neighborhoods because so many houses are decorated.
“Over the past couple of years more and more people have been participating and adding a lot more things,” she said. “It’s nice to see people getting into the spirit.”
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The family doesn’t have to fear the December power bill, she said.
Because Raffa’s lights are LEDs, they don’t draw a lot of power. Their December power bill usually rises by about $150, but it’s manageable, she said.
Raffa says she’s like to connect with a charity — she’s thought about Toys for Tots — but worries it’s too late this year to try and that having to handle a lot of donations might create some kind of problem she can’t foresee.
It’s not hard for her to explain why she spends so much time to delight people she doesn’t know and likely will never meet in person.
“Honestly, it’s just the joy of seeing other people enjoy it,” she said. “It does take us a couple of months to put up and it does get frustrating at times, but seeing other people enjoy it or hearing other people commenting on how wonderful it is, and seeing that little bit of Christmas magic, especially from some of the kids …
“Or I’ll hear people saying, you know I take the long way home from work just so I can drive by this house. It all just makes it worth it at that point.”
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience.
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