WEST GROVE -- Around West Grove, when people talk about Christmas decorations, they always mention the Howard family. Every December for the past 17 years, their house and yard on Greenfields Lane have glowed so brightly with holiday lights that cars cruise the road in front of their home in lines each night from Dec. 1 to Jan. 7. Even people who catch a glimpse of their property from the Route 1 bypass marvel at it and occasionally ask around to try to find a way to get closer.
But after all the years and all the glory, Phil Howard, his wife Barbie, and their daughters Jill and Jamie have declared this to be the last.
“It’s too hard on the arthritis in the joints -- climbing up the trees and creeping in the bushes to plug in the cords,” Phil said.
It’s not that they have grown to dislike the effort; it’s just too much.
“We keep saying ‘one more year. . . ,’” Barbie said.
And Jill finished her sentence, “We continue it for other people.”
They don’t plan on going completely dark next year, but the display will be cut down substantially. Phil described what he has in mind for the future as a “regular” set up -- just an outline of the house like the first time they did it in 1996.
Phil, 58, said he started decorating when the girls were young. “Jill was 10 and Jamie was 13. Now they’re 27 and 30,” he said.
The first year it was just the roof and walls of the house -- according to his count, about 6,000 lights. Then they kept adding on.
“At the end of the season, we would look around and see what was on sale. We try to change it up each year,” he said.
At the latest count, Barbie said, they are up to about 53,000 lights, and the string would probably stretch for miles.
In addition to trees, bushes and dwelling covered with lights, there are also winter and holiday themed objects -- many of them that move in concert with Christmas music that accompanies the display.
There are ice-skaters, penguins, a polar bear, a fire truck, animals, Santa Claus and reindeer on the roof, candy canes, a lighted archway over the driveway, and much more -- for as far as the eye can see.
In addition to that, Phil dresses up as Santa Claus on Saturday nights and greets children from a heated hut in the front yard. They also give out hot chocolate.
Recently they added a pathway through the extravaganza so children can run through and see it all without disturbing the wiring or structure.
The whole thing takes lots of work.
They start putting up the lights in October, and it takes two months to get the whole thing, including electrical circuits, extension cords and computer boxes in order. One computer box is even programmed to have the music coordinate with the rhythm of the blinking lights, a sight that is particularly impressive as the arches over the driveway go on and off to the highs and lows of the songs.
While October is the official kickoff for the re-building every year, Phil said the project is on his mind all year long. Most recently he was inspired during the summer to take metal tomato cages, turn the upside down and light them in green to look like evergreen trees.
Sometimes, people contribute items, and among those contributors was Herr Foods, which gave the Howards all of their old lights when they converted to LED lights.
The Howards said there have been many pleasures and rewards, even at the cost of an additional $800 or $900 increase in their electric bill for December.
One thing that has encouraged them is that the neighbors have been supportive, not complaining about the steady stream of cars. “They just don’t want the cars turning around in their driveways so they put cones down,” Phil said.
He is appreciative of the West Grove and state police who have patrolled and kept the traffic in order.
It has also warmed their hearts that people stop and leave notes of thanks.
One note said, “So sad it’s your last year.”
Another said, “I’m 22 and have ridden past and seen the display for most of my life. I finally figured out how to get to it.”
The project has also given Phil a reputation.
“I’d be in a conversation with someone and they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re the one with the lights,’” Phil said.
He added, “Some guy told me about his lights in Delaware.”
In the past few years when the Howards have talked about quitting, neighbors volunteered to help. But it seems, Barbie said, that they are unable to put in the time that is needed weekend after weekend.
Still, even with the future relief on their joints and the reduction of the electric bill, cutting down the display will create a void.
“We will miss it,” Barbie said.
Both Phil and Barbie are natives of the area. Phil graduated from Avon Grove and is a bus driver. Barbie graduated from Kennett, class of 1978, and is a day care provider.