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Bright blue and purple snowflakes are projected on an ornate 18th century building at night as part of a Christmas decoration lights display.
From Dublin’s Custom House to your house, new professional lighting tools are making the season bright.
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The war on Christmas lights

Lasers and projectors are ending the old-fashioned tradition of stringing up lights

Strolling your neighborhood this December, it’s clear the halls are decked a bit differently than they were in the days of yore. Instead of twinkling strings of lights up on the housetop, there are spinning stars of wonder, digital flurries, and animated boughs of holly fa-la-la-la-laing across every front porch.

Like a freak snowstorm, these “laser projector” lights have blanketed the winter landscape. A casual survey of my Los Angeles street shows them being used on every third house; and they’ve even been given the New York Times Style Section treatment. You can find a wide variety of projector lights stacked into displays at your local hardware store, including the most popular version, the Star Shower, which has remained the top-selling product in Amazon.com’s Lawn, Garden and Patio department for weeks. There are “Patriot” versions and even Star Wars-themed ones, should you want to put Santa Vader on your door.

Fans of projection lights welcome this Pink Floyd-by-way-of-North Pole innovation, which they see as a fresh take on an inefficient, and sometimes dangerous, tradition. "I think they're pretty," says Kalee Thompson, a writer who lives in the Highland Park neighborhood of LA. "We need more new outdoor lights, but maybe these would last longer and be more cost-effective—and you’d be less likely to fall off a ladder."

But what’s seen as one decorator’s convenient tool is positioned as another’s lazy shortcut. No longer will you need to wrestle with tangled wires, busted fuses, and burnt-out bulbs—simply stake, point, plug, and return to other yuletide pleasures. On the other hand: What is Christmas without wrestling with tangled wires, busted fuses, and burnt-out bulbs?

Laser fail.
Photo by Marc Caswell

“Much like Elf on the Shelf and blow-ups in front yards, it’s a new holiday trend I am not ready to accept,” says Los Angeles resident Kelli Bachmann, who has been documenting Christmas light displays daily on Instagram. (The laser lights seem to outnumber inflatable snowmen two-to-one this year, at least in my hood.)

While the hottest trend in holiday lighting is being given the cold shoulder by traditionalists, there are also some annoying side effects. Not surprisingly, aiming what’s essentially a laser pointer at your house is a lot like aiming a laser pointer at your house. It’s imprecise, for one, leading to "laser creep" that can throw a smattering of errant green measles upon your neighbor’s garage. Or your parked car.

It’s also visually startling. Users of projection-adjacent sidewalks have been shocked to discover what’s basically a red sniper scope illuminating their noses. In fact, the makers of the Star Shower put out a warning that homeowners who live in flight paths less than 10 miles from airports should not use their products, as they can interfere with pilots’ vision.

Those disclaimers haven’t seemed to dampen the zealousness for projection lasers, which have even infiltrated the most famous residence in the country. The White House has even been adorned with laser projection lights, thanks to designer Bryan Rafanelli, who decorated the residence for the Obamas’ last holiday season in 2016.

Photos by Michael Blanchard

“I found them when I was in Home Depot looking at trees,” says Rafanelli. “I saw the picture and was like, ‘We should do this at the White House!’” He notably used the lights to illuminate the White House’s lower cross hallways, where the igloo-like corridors feature life-sized snowmen and convincingly icy snowflakes.

Rafanelli has used projection lights for plenty of events but he says the key to these new gadgets is subtlety. "You don’t want to see them," says Rafanelli, who suggests zooming the projector back until the shapes become more abstract. Also, avoid the red and green sparkles indoors. "Inside the house, they’re better if it’s not color," he notes. "You can make it look like it’s snowing over your tree." (Also, heed his tip for those who fear the bluish-grey light of LED string lighting: He combines three different sizes of lights, and doubles the total number of lights he thinks he might need.)

But back to the animated snowflakes—are these ephemeral apparitions the ghosts of Christmas future? I posed this question to Chris Medvitz at Lightswitch, who created the Enchanted: Forest of Light display at Descanso Gardens in Los Angeles. He used what he calls projection "fireflies" in one area of the garden, but like Rafanelli, he limited the color palette and boosted the number of light sources. "Instead of one or two projectors we used three dozen of them, which paints the trees in thousands of little swirling laser dots."

Medvitz says these projections are simply the latest in commercial-grade holiday lighting technology that’s slowly trickling down to consumers. Another trend we’ll be seeing more of are programmable LEDs, which can be choreographed via app to control light level or change color. You’ll see a lot of them on more "serious" residential displays (every town has that one guy).

But the versatile projectors and customized LEDs do point to a bigger trend which Medvitz is seeing in holiday decor. "It’s not as much about adding tiny sparkling lights, but more about colored and choreographed landscape lighting," he says. So the tasteful spotlights illuminating your front porch the other 11 months of the year can be carefully tuned to the proper shade of red or green as the holidays approach, much like the themed lighting on the Empire State Building. One would only need a smartphone to program the right vibe, similar to products like Philips Hue.

Descanso Gardens’s display is an annual spectacle of lights.
Photo courtesy of Jen Lewin Studio by Sights and Sound Media House

It’s not hard to imagine this spiraling into spectacle. Here I was worried about every house on the street using the same dancing dots of green and red. Now I started to envision a street where homes become instantly customized for any holiday with a tap of an app.

In addition to the most wonderful time of the year, projectors permanently installed in the yard might also show ghosts for Halloween and shamrocks on St. Patrick’s Day or—why not?—the latest selfies from your Instagram feed. Each house projects its own graphics, spinning the street into a pulsing, muddled, psychedelic mess.

Are we ready to hand over our merry measure to the Internet of Things? Christmas light technology already seems to be moving on an especially accelerated timeline. In my lifetime, I’ve seen already seen the classic incandescent C9 bulbs journey from ubiquity to near-extinction. In a few years, will string lights fall victim to the Christmas decor singularity as well? More importantly: How will we ever explain that scene in Christmas Vacation to our kids?

Whether lasers will be a literal flash in the pan that quickly fades away, or a trend that powers on, only time will determine what, exactly, looks a lot like Christmas. As Bryan Rafanelli demonstrated, the projection light can be employed tastefully, especially when you combine the effect with a variety of other lights. But as you question whether bulbs and cords are gone for good, consider what a professional lighting designer like Chris Medvitz uses at home. "I still have incandescents on my house," he says. "They just look better."

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