Tuscaloosa Man Unveils His Massive 20,000 Christmas Light Show
"I don't do this for any reason other than the love of lights, animation, music and to see the smile on peoples' faces," said Jon Small, a Tuscaloosa resident responsible for one of the city's most elaborate home light shows.
Small's passion first started back in 2013 when he left the military and returned home to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He already owned several thousand lights but had never animated them. He bought his first controller and began the tedious months-long process of animating each individual light to sync up to music.
He entered a local light competition and won first place in the Week 1 competition two years in a row. Small lost the overall competition to an individual who would later go on to win ABC's "The Great Christmas Light Fight." Small laughed and said at that point he didn't have an extra $200,000 to dedicate to lights to compete on that level.
Family caused him to move back to the Tuscaloosa area, and he's continued the annual light show tradition, continuing to add on to the show's length and adding more lights. Two years ago, Small lived off of Red Top Avenue in Cottondale, where some nights he would see over 100 cars a night.
Now that he's moved, he promises that his show hasn't gone away, and has only gotten bigger. This year, the show is 45 minutes long from start to finish, with 4 new songs added bringing the total up to 15 with over 20,000 total lights.
Small walked through how exactly he designed the show: the entire yard runs off of a single laptop. Each light is programmed in a program that Small called a "mix between Excel and Paint." The program loads a massive spreadsheet, where the x-axis tells time increments and each box on the y-axis represents an individual light. From there, he can change the color of each light individually, or sync them to a pattern.
He likes to update the show each year. In preparation of this show, Small added several thousand new lights to the front of his house, each connected to panels he made by hand. This year's setup took 2 weeks to finish.
Small said that surprisingly, the lights don't run up his electricity bill significantly. The reason is that he runs all of his lights at anywhere between 10-25% intensity and converts his currents to 12 volt DC voltage.
"I'm a big electrical guy. So I tested this a while ago to see how much it was pulling," he said. "For a six hour show, it's pulling only five and a half amps on a 15 amp breaker. That's less energy than it takes to cook a roast on a stove or take a warm bath."
As for the show itself, people interested in coming to see it can drive to 86 Circlewood in Tuscaloosa. The neighborhood loops around, and Small has signs that will direct traffic to the right entrance.
What sets Small's show apart from other light shows is that each light is programmed to light up individually, whereas other shows use what's called a "whole house effect generator." Every light plugged into the program will do the same effect, whether that's showing the same color or flashing in the same pattern.
"I choose to program my shows like an orchestra," Small said. "Every light has a specific part to play. Like my icicles will play percussion and the trumpet solos, my miniature trees are the flutes and French horns. It depends on the song. I even have a guitar pattern programmed on my big tree that plays the correct strum pattern and chords with the songs!"
The show features a wide variety of songs and setups, including full video displays along the house's front panels featuring clips from movies like "Frozen 2."
Once folks arrive in front of the house, they'll pull off to the right side of the road and tune their radios to 89.9 FM to sync the show to the music.
Small has used that same frequency since he started in Louisiana, where it was dead air. Although Tuscaloosa has a station that broadcasts at that same frequency, Small reassured the Thread that his transmitter signal is so small that his Christmas light show music only plays within a 500 foot radius of his house.
The show starts every night from now until January 1 at 5 p.m. and runs on loop until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
"The main thing I ask for everyone who drives by is to please stop for at least a song," Small said. "It's more than you can capture in a photo or even a video. It's worth stopping and enjoying for just a little bit."
Signs at the end of the driveway advertise a donation box and a GoFundMe page for anyone looking to spread a little Christmas cheer. However, Small said that any and all money raised goes directly towards buying more lights to build an even more impressive show for the next year.
"I've never made a penny off of this and I never will," Small said. "I never did this for myself. I only wanted to make other people happy."