Magical or tacky? Holiday displays go all-out

It’s Saturday night and a line of cars stretches down the street in a suburban Alpharetta subdivision, illuminated by an eye-popping backdrop of blinking lights synchronized to bouncy music.

Suddenly, “Gangnam Style” bubbles up from the mix, and the happy crowd singing and dancing in the driveway gets moving to the groove.

The scene might resemble some sort of pop-up outdoor disco, but the high-tech front yard display, dubbed Mint Julep Christmas, is one of any number of holiday light shows designed by dedicated gadget geeks and listed on enthusiast websites such as

Richard Nitto is the man behind Mint Julep. The soft-spoken retiree had been handling his family’s Christmas lights in more modest ways for many years. But like other Tacky Light decorators, Nitto was dazzled, then inspired by a 2005 video that showed some 16,000 lights programmed to twinkle and fantastically trip out to the operatic-rock sounds of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s “Wizards in Winter.”

“It was a huge YouTube hit, and I thought, ‘I might like to try that sometime,’ ” Nitto remembered. “My wife, Peggy, said, ‘Well, go for it, then.’ But I don’t think she understood how it would grow into what we’ve got now.”

Currently, Nitto’s webpage lists 50,000 lights, using 160 channels of computerized controllers, including a 20-foot tree with 12,800 lights, two 10-foot spiral trees with 6,400 lights each, and 26 mini trees with 15,000 lights, plus six “leaping arches” with 4,200 lights, and a miniature animated skating rink. Visitors driving by can tune in and “listen to the lights” on the FM radio dial. For those who want a closer look, there are speakers out in the yard.

Nitto spends the summer months at his computer listening to music and programming the lights to sync with specific holiday songs. On Thanksgiving, he flips a switch set to a timer, and the lights keep coming on every evening at 6 through New Year’s.

“I don’t golf. I don’t boat. This is my hobby,” Nitto said. “This is where I put my spare change.”

The display is free and open to the public, though donations are accepted, with all funds going to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Sibley Heart Center.

“I’ve had an excellent reaction from neighbors,” Nitto said. “My next-door neighbor is always the biggest contributor. Last year, we were able to give Children’s Healthcare $2,600.”

Adding “Gangnam Style” to his repertoire was something Nitto said he did “for the kids” this year.

“They’ve been out here singing along and thinking I’m a real hip guy, because I had that song,” Nitto said. “I’m fairly hip, but I’m not that hip.”

The Tacky Light master of the sixth annual Meckley Family Xmas in Kennesaw is John Meckley, a former Navy pilot who’s an administrative director at Ernst & Young in Atlanta. Meckley got hooked in grand National Lampoon fashion after coming in third in a neighborhood Christmas decorating contest. Since then, his front yard hasn’t been the same during the holiday season.

“Yes, I’ve been called the Clark Griswold of North Atlanta,” Meckley said. “That’s the running joke when my neighbors see me out there setting up around Thanksgiving. They all drive by, asking, ‘How’s it going, Clark?’ But in fairness, there’s a lot more going on than that.”

Meckley’s show opens every year on the first Sunday in December. Two weeks prior, he’s buried in the business of building the set and programming a new song for 256 controllers and 30,000 LED lights.

“It takes about 10 hours of programming for every minute of music,” Meckley said. “We always have a family meeting to decide what song we’re adding to the show. This year, it’s Straight No Chaser’s ‘12 Days of Christmas,’ which turns out to be the favorite so far by crowd vote.”

The show features nine different selections, including “Jingle Bells” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Meckley records voice-over breaks that run between songs in his DJ persona as Simon the Minty Elf. Among the silly jokes and intros, Simon asks visitors to politely dim headlights and not block neighbors’ driveways.

Asked if there are any real live Grinches in the neighborhood, Meckley laughed and allowed that there are some people who don’t exactly see his winter wonderland the way he does.

“But there’s a flip side, too,” Meckley said. “A few nights ago, a woman called out to me, and looked like she was just about to cry. She said, ‘I just want to thank you, because my husband just lost his job and we’re not going to be able to give the kids a lot of presents. But we’ve been coming to your show, and that’s how they’re going to have Christmas this year.’

“I said, ‘That’s why I do this.’ ”

Atlanta Holiday Guide 2015: Holiday lights and events

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