How to Grade Your Neighbors’ Holiday Light Displays

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The Denmead Family's Lights in 2005.

I have been called the Clark Griswold of my neighborhood, and while my kids are beyond the “age of credulity,” as a family we still get really, really into Christmas, including having an excellent holiday light display.

Indeed, before LED lights became the norm, I learned the fine art of load-balancing our light strings’ power draw over multiple breakers, to avoid a hairdryer knocking out half the house while the display was lit. But the point is we love putting up a fine display: lights on the eaves, some inflatables, colored spots highlighting penguin and polar bear stand-ups, and even a “tree-of-lights” I built myself (it folds up for easy storage!). Oh, and it all syncs with holiday tunes playing on a special music device.

So, we have fun with the whole holiday-lights thing. And, being the very meta geek-family we are, we got into the habit of (with both snark and admiration where due) grading other light displays we saw when driving around town. Hopefully you won’t think the less of us for this admission. We don’t want to put people down! Rather, we want to encourage whomever goes to the trouble of putting up lights for the season to strive for greatness in their display of holiday spirit.

And to this end, again being the geek I am, I realized I needed to come up with a (relatively) objective system for grading light displays. Which is what I now present to you:

General Notes: We’re going to use a simple 100 point system, like good old school grades. A is 90-100, B is 80-89, C is 70-79 and so forth. But it will also have a baseline: if a household has done *anything* in the way of a holiday display, they start with 50 points. Then they will receive 1 to 10 points in each of 5 categories to determine their final grade. The categories are as follows.

Quantity: simply speaking, how much did they put out? Is it only lights on the eaves? Then 2 points (1 if they don’t even get all the eaves). Lights on the bushes or trees in the yard, kick the score up to 4. Do they have stand-ups or inflatables as well? Add a couple more points. Obviously some of the scoring is subjective, but you get the idea.

Variety: This ties into Quantity a bit, but represents how well the display uses multiple, disparate elements. Assume 1 point for each *different* element used (normal string lights, icicle lights, net lights, spots, inflatables, stand-ups, faux snow, characters and more).

Form: The yard is a canvas, or a stage, and the gifted display-designer will fill it artistically. Balance is always important, as is creative use of the elements to engender an emotional reaction (hopefully joy).

Ingenuity: use of unexpected elements, or building one’s own pieces counts in these category. Telling a story with the display is highly valuable.

Reviewer’s Skew: 10 points left to the reviewer to grant based on their gut-reaction to the display, an assessment of the dip lay relative to neighboring displays, and/or a sense of holiday whimsy or generosity.

And now, as an example, I give you our holiday lights this season:

Being *TOTALLY* objective, I’d score our lights as follows:
Quantity – 7, a nice full amount for the space, but room for additional elements.
Variety – 9, good variety, and the custom music syncing gets extra points.
Form – 8, well balanced use of the elements.
Ingenuity – 7, a few generic elements, but some good home-made pieces as well.
Reviewer’s Skew – 8. I am very happy with the layout this year, but wish I’d had time to add more pieces.

Total score: 50 +7 +9 + 8 + 8 + 8 = 90. A solid “A-!”

So, take a look at your own lights, or those around your town, and start using this system to pick the holiday artists! Happy holidays!

[A version of this post originally ran in December, 2010.]

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