An award-winning lighting design on Snell Isle by Decorating Elves. Photo courtesy Nick Schriver.

Let There Be (Holiday) Lights! And let these people put them up for you

“My clients will lose a lot of money if they try putting their own lights up,” declares Nick Schriver, owner of Decorating Elves, which festoons local homes and businesses with holiday sparkle.

Let’s take a few seconds to unpack that statement. Decorating Elves generally charges from $3,000 to $10,000 to design and install a lighting array that’ll dazzle the neighbors and passersby. So, not cheap. What Schriver means is this: Homeowners who can afford his service cannot afford to tumble off a roof or ladder while stringing their own lights — thus losing a lot of dough. Sure, a homeowner could emerge unscathed, but why take the risk? And furthermore, why bother? Have someone else do it.

Several businesses in the Tampa Bay area set up elaborate holiday lighting arrays that include design, full installation, turnkey usage, quick service if something breaks, and thorough disassembly not long after the holidays. Their projects include lights on the house, trees, shrubs and elsewhere, and also lighted wreaths, bows, garlands and other elements. (None of the business owners interviewed for this story mentioned inflatable snowmen, but if you simply have to have one…)

A lighting design by Christmas Light Girl. Photo courtesy Melissa Christensen.

Holiday lighting on luxury homes doesn’t change much from year to year. The thinking goes that anyone who can afford to have a company come out and dress up the exterior of their house will have some measure of taste. That means, “a classy warm look with mostly white lights,” says Melissa Christensen, who runs Christmas Light Girl out of her home in Brooksville. “I like to throw a bit of color in, but some people insist on all white.”

“I encourage my clients not to go Griswold,” says Ray Reed, owner of R&R Decorative Landscape in Zephyrhills, referring to the family in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. “If you put up too much it becomes one big glaring light and takes away from each element. I do have one customer who insists on the full Griswold, though.”

A home illuminated by R&R Design. Photo courtesy Ray Reed.

Local companies take different approaches, but all have similar aims — to ensure that clients are thrilled with the results, and that their work adds an uplifting feel to the holiday season (with perhaps some neighborhood bragging rights along the way). Certain installations defy the imagination. Decorating Elves outfits a home in St. Pete that, Schriver says, requires 180,000 mini-lights, many of them wrapped around 12 royal palms that rise 40 to 50 feet, along with 15 to 20 smaller foxtail palms. 

Schriver says his year-round company, based in Clearwater, employs 60 people during peak season. He has four designers on staff. His 8,500-square-foot warehouse, 24 feet high, is packed with materials. Just to be clear, companies that decorate large luxury homes rarely sell the customer lights and other ornamental gear. Rather, it’s effectively a short-term lease of a holiday package — which means the homeowner does not have to store the stuff after it comes down.

Another view of Decorating Elves’ Snell Isle project. Photo courtesy Nick Schriver.

Reed of R&R does his own design work. He consults with clients, downloads photos of the home, does a computer overlay of his design, then delivers a jpg picture of precisely how the customer’s home will look with his lighting. They can then tweak it to perfection. The entire development process can be handled remotely. Rather than string lights on homes, R&R uses 48-inch metal frames mounted with LED lights. The modular units, which he had custom-built, make for easier installation and breakdown. 

Advances in technology have introduced exciting new concepts into the holiday lighting business. Computer-programmed arrays enable a tree or entire home to become its own light show, full of movement and shifting shapes and colors. Another hot trend is to project animated Santas, Grinches, Snoopys and other images on select windows and blank spaces like garage doors. They can even be synced to music.

Then there’s the “Covid tree,” which Reed decided to build on his own. The 34-foot-high metal structure shaped like a Christmast tree is covered with ornaments loosely shaped like Covid-19 molecules. Viewed from a distance, it looks like another bright red holiday tree, but up close it’s a reminder of the complicated times we’re living in. It’s not often you see a Christmas tree as a sociopolitical statement, but Reed felt compelled to create it. 

“We built it as a tribute for businesses and families impacted by loss from Covid-19,” Reed says. “I haven’t placed it yet, but the tree will go up.”

The Bay area’s holiday lighting specialists clearly love their work and the joy it spreads — and they also recognize the benefit of operating in Florida. Schriver, who started his company in the early 2000s while a college student at Ohio State, says, “I appreciate that I get to wear shorts and sunglasses in November instead of a heavy winter jacket.”