By Maddie Cimino
Staff Writer for the Knight Crier
TOWAMENCIN — The Christmas season. A time of year when lights line the streets that exude happiness and spirit.
For Brian Michael and his family living at 102 Kimberly Way in Hatfield, the whole year leads up to this time, a time when his hobby turns into a magical display that brings smiles and cheer to all that are near — and one that topped the competition in a nationwide TV show last week.
From a young age, Brian Michael has always been fascinated by holiday light displays, but after buying his own house with his wife, he was able to bring his passion to another level.
“I got into decorating when I was a kid,” Michael said. “[When] I was six years old the apartment complex [I lived in] was having a decorating contest. My mom said that I heard about it and I insisted that I wanted to do it. So she got me the decorations, I created my own nativity, and I hung lights outside. That’s where it [all] started.”
“In ’98 we got our first house in Lansdale Borough,” Michael continued. “That was when we started collecting decorations, and after three to four years, it got to be more than average.”
Decorations ranging from blow molds to yard art can be seen outside of the Michael family’s house. Although they are all an important part of Brian’s collection, a couple of pieces in particular are extra special.
“One of the decorations [outside] is a fireplace and there is a picture on top of the fireplace of my first Christmas display,” Michael stated. “[There is also] a piece from 1970 that I’ve restored twice. [It is] two boxes with elves in them and in the middle, there is an arch with a Santa Claus holding a lantern. There are not many of them out there, and instead of just restoring it, and keeping it somewhere no one else can see it but me, our family likes to put it out.”
A large part of the attraction to Michael’s house is the diversity of decorations and the radio station that the lights dance along to. This music was not always a part of his display however, it was an addition following a trend in the early 2000s.
“I have always been infatuated with the trend that started in about 2000 of dancing the lights to music. So instead of taking my focus off of what I primarily collect, I decided to create a section of that,” Michael said. “I have a mega tree, a mini tree, and arches and they are all run by a computer. The computer has software and you have to program the songs to the music. Each song can take upwards of eight hours to program. The software then syncs lights to the music but it also has outputs of a broadcast system [that can be reached from all cars] within a small radius of the display.”
For the couple weeks of cheer this display creates, there is a lot of work that goes into it all year long.
“The actual assembly of the display takes anywhere from six to eight weeks, depending on weather and motivation, but it’s an all-year thing. I work on Christmas all year, even during Christmas and after everything is up, I am already collecting and buying stuff for next year.” Michael explained. “I like to say it’s a labor of love.”
Although the display provides a lot of happiness for the Michael family, one of the reasons they continue to do it is the community.
“[Decorating] is a hobby, and it is something I enjoy doing, but the real motivator is the community because when you see all the children and families that come here year after year, and how happy they are, that’s what drives us to do it,” Michael stated.
Happiness is not the only thing that comes out of the display, however. Brian and his family have held many events for those in their community as a way to give back.
“We have [supported different] charities. We used to do Santa nights and give out small presents and candy canes to kids, and we have also supported the ALS foundation because we had a friend who unfortunately passed away a few years ago from Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
Though the causes mentioned above are very important, for the past two years the Michael family has been using their display as a way to raise awareness for a disease that has changed their family’s lives.
“My wife has a disease called Ataxia and not many people know [of it]. So one of the things we started doing these last two years in the display is trying to drive awareness to Ataxia,” Michael explained. “It is a neurodegenerative disease that basically takes away your mobility, your speech, issues with your eyes, and there is no cure. There is [a sign] outside that has a QR code with a link to the National Ataxia Foundation. All we ask is people scan the QR code to learn what the disease is and if you want to donate for research, there is a link on their page [to do so].”
Brian Michael has been watching The Great Christmas Light Fight on ABC since it started in 2013. Now, 11 years later, his display was featured and competed for the $50,000 grand prize he has watched families, like his own, win year after year, however, Michael never thought this would happen.
“I always thought about applying for it, but I never [did],” Michael said. “A couple of years ago we were on vacation at the Jersey shore and we came home to a voicemail from a casting producer that wanted us to apply.[My initial response] was, “Ehh I don’t think we’re ready”, and when I finally went to call my wife accidentally deleted the message so we ignored it for a while.”
“Two years ago, the last week of casting, my wife said ‘Brian I think you need to apply. We aren’t going to be able to do this soon so why don’t you apply,” Michael said. “I applied in August, the last couple days of casting. Within a week, I heard they were interested and we did Zoom interviews for pre-casting. We heard back on Labor Day weekend that we were an alternate.”
Although being an alternate is not ideal, it is better than Brian had originally expected. Plus, being an alternate didn’t mean that the Michael family was completely out of the competition.
“[When they called] they suggested we decorate as though we were going to be on the show because people pull out for different reasons. Sure enough, another week went by and somebody pulled out, meaning we were on the show,” Michael explained.
Casting for the Great Christmas Light Fight is extremely competitive. Thousands of families apply each year, and a total of about 30 families are cast.
“There are other extreme decorators around the country that have been applying for the show for over five years, and they don’t make it,” Michael said. “So it was unique to apply and get on the show the first time we tried.”
Getting the news of being cast was extremely exciting for the Michael family, however, it also came with a lot of nerves.
“First of all you’re worried you aren’t going to get done, then when you’re done you’re worried it’s not going to be good enough, and then when the day is here, you are worried about how it’s going to go,” Michael explained.
“We were scheduled to film November 10th, 11th, and 12th, about a month and a half after we received news of being cast,” Michael said. “On the 10th the producer and their camera crew [were set] to come out and review everything and tell us what was going to happen and set up the gear. The 11th was supposed to be the main filming day. [Also on] November 11th, the reminisce of hurricane Nicole was supposed to hit.”
The days leading up to filming were filled with lots of stress. Brian was constantly checking the weather in hopes that it would not mess up the plan. Because the producers had dealt with similar situations, they weren’t too worried and continued the filming with minimal changes.
“It drizzled a little bit, then it stopped, Michael explained. “It was a little breezy, and they had to push [reveal] back a little bit, [but] we got to film the whole night. We filmed from 6:30-7 until 10, and the crew was here until 1 in the morning. The crew then came back on the 12th to film the B-roll. That’s where they film all the interviews in the house or outside, then they film me setting up stuff. And that’s where the fun is,” Michael continued.
After spending three days with the production crew, the Michaels have nothing but memories of these times as the cast families don’t get to see what is being aired before the general public.
“You do all this three-day filming to get maybe 10-12 minutes on TV, and we don’t know what’s there and what’s not.”
For those who have seen the Great Christmas Light Fight before, big crowds and a big black SUV may be a part of the show that comes to mind. This was not something that will be seen in season 11 of the show, however, because it was being filmed shortly after COVID-19.
“If you watched the show pre-covid, everybody had the big crowds and the big black SUV that pulls up with the wreath on it with the ‘Light Fight’ license plate, we didn’t get to experience that and neither did any of the other families for the last three years,” Michael explained. “Every day we would get COVID tested. There was a chance that if someone tested positive in our family, [they] couldn’t participate. They would still film and find a way around it.”
“In general the neighbors are pretty good with the display, but they don’t like the traffic,” Michael explained. “I think our neighbors recognize that we do the display for the community, but there are some burdens with the traffic. We do really appreciate the neighbors that bear through the few short weeks that it is. As you get popular, there are growing pains, and [traffic is one] we are working on,” Michael explained. “To anybody visiting, please use common sense and courtesy. Don’t turn around in driveways, turn around in the cul-de-sac. Please drive slowly, don’t stop directly at the stop sign, where other cars can’t get in.”
In order to deal with this traffic, the hours for the lights display are changing for this year. Based on timing, the display was lit for the first time this year on December 1st, and will be on every night for the remainder of the holiday season, excluding the night the Michaels were featured on The Great Christmas Light Fight. For more information on hours, visit them on Facebook @TheMichaelFamilyChristmasDisplay.
Although their airing may not have been the original plan, Brian and family are extremely honored to be on the show not only raising awareness for Ataxia but also representing Towamencin.
“Regardless if we win or lose, it is really really hard to get on this show. We lucked out when we applied, the timing was right, the situation was right, and the network saw what we did and liked it,” Michael stated. “I am hoping that we make North Penn, Hatfield, and Towamencin really proud for just being on the show, and if something happens and we win, that will be even better.”
On Dec. 19, the Michael Family was named the winner of “The Christmas Light Fight” on ABC’s broadcast, earning a $50,000 prize — and nationwide bragging rights.
“I would have never expected this,” said Brian. “I just do it to make people happy.”
Editor’s note: While the Michael Family and their display are located in Towamencin Township, they have a Hatfield mailing address, and all promotional materials and listings show the home as being in Hatfield.
This article appears courtesy of a content-sharing agreement between The Knight Crier, North Penn Now, and The Reporter. To read more stories like this, visit www.knightcrier.org or www.NorthPennNow.com.