Soldotna couple lights up for the holidays

All aglow

Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006


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  The Smith family's lighted driveway beckons visitors to come in for a closer look. The residence is on Jones Road off Gaswell Road in Soldotna. M. Scott Moon

Jay C. Smith and his wife, Karen, are pictured with a lighted nativity scene in their brightly decorated yard in Soldotna. "The reason for the season is the birth of Christ. We do the rest for the fun of it, and we enjoy seeing the faces of the kids," Jay C. Smith said.

M. Scott Moon

From nearly a mile down Jones Road, the blinking lights are the first indicator.

As you get closer, you realize there’s more than just lights in a tree.

A nativity scene. An archway of lights welcoming you to drive up. A spinning carousel. Snowmen, an igloo, icicle lighting on the house — there’s even a Santa where a garage should be.

This if the fifth year Jay C. and Karen Smith have been lighting up their Soldotna neighborhood. Including this year, the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce has given them top honors in their Christmas Lighting Contest each of the last four holiday seasons.

But don’t be misled. This isn’t a guy trying to see how commercialized he can decorate his home. Rather, he and his wife are humble Christians who believe the nativity scene is most important and all else is just, well, just good old-fashioned fun.

“It’s not lost on me how there’s a simplicity of the nativity compared to the grand secular season,” Karen said.

Added Jay C., “The reason for the season is the birth of Christ. We do the rest for the fun of it, and we enjoy seeing the faces of the kids.”

Karen sat down earlier, essentially writing an Internet Web log entitled “Confessions of a Christmas Lighting Widow.” She is not unhappy being such a widow. In fact, there’s a gleam in her eye and a smile creasing her face whenever she as much thinks of Jay C. and the yuletide season. She writes:

In years past it began at the end of the summer giving us a short break at winter’s end. I’m talking about, the plotting, the planning, the obsessing, the ‘What can I do next year?’ of Christmas lighting. This year was different. I’m not sure there really was an end to his dreams of his glorious Christmas lighting display.


They hand candy canes to Solomon Rasch as his mom Heather drives through the couple's cul-de-sac driveway.

M. Scott Moon

Getting ideas is pretty easy for such an occasion as Christmas. Anywhere you look, in and around town or especially on television, you can’t help but pick up something.

“There’s always next year,” Jay C. said, hinting the list of ideas is infinite. “We’ve watched a lot of HGTV (Home and Garden Television Network) and The Learning Channel. And the Christmas specials.”

Rest assured, the ideas will not end for the marketing consultant at local radio station KSRM.

“Really, when I start doing the driveway, putting in the two-by-two and stuff, Karen and I will talk about stuff over coffee,” he said. “She’ll come up with the idea, and I’ll have the mechanics of it, how we can do it. I would have done a lot more this year, but it was so cold in November. And the wind — it really kept us from doing what we wanted to do this year.”

Never are two years exactly alike.

“There’s always something different, but the last year or two has been different,” Jay C. said. “Next year will be completely different. This year is a carousel, last year was the diorama in the garage. Year before, it was hoops over the driveway.”

Year one was your basic house decorations with a nativity scene out front. The second they added fencing down the driveway with one well-lit PVC pipe hoop at the end.

“It’s absolutely wonderful,” said neighbor Dawn Hoogenboom, who with husband, Pete, this year took the ultimate step — not decorating outside, opting to just enjoy the Smiths.

“Our family looks forward to Jay C. going out and starting to put up his lights. Every day the kids come home and we look to see what he adds. The kids are always excited to see it. He takes the spirit of Christmas and goes with it.”

Every garage sale we went to during the summer was diligently searched for that one box in the corner, the one with the garland hanging out of it. I remember a Saturday in July and the looks on the faces of the people coming in. We were in Kenai, walking out of a garage. Tucked under his arm was Santa in his sleigh, and a tiny reindeer and on his beaming face, the glow of Christmas yet to come. How could I have possibly known at the time that that little reindeer would become Rudolph, his teeny nose cut out, replaced with a socket, and red C7 light bulb?

Jay C. was once upon a time a shipwright. He’s done maintenance jobs, has had a hand in plumbing and electrical work. Pretty much, he’s a handy kind of guy.

Or, as he describes, “a jack of all trades, master of none.”


The Smiths convert their garage into a Christmas diorama for several weeks.

M. Scott Moon

Observers of his displays might argue in his favor the “master” part. And his pastor and close friend, Larry Huntsperger of Peninsula Bible Fellowship, would add one other quality.

“He has a remarkable, remarkable love for life,” Huntsperger said. “When he enjoys something, he pours himself into it with such vitality. He does it with everything — I’ve seen him do it with his music.

“With Jay, in part, it’s an expression that is a genuine love for life.”

Jay C. quickly gives out credit to his craft, noting George Herr Jr. at Peninsula Bearing.

“Building a carousel, getting electricity on there, that was no small feat,” he said. “If not for George at Peninsula Bearing, I couldn’t have gotten the carousel up and running.”

The inside of the house numbers more than 1,300 bulbs (900 alone on the main tree) and the outside counts 8,665 (not counting inflatables).

“There’s more lights in the garage not unpacked,” Karen said.

Jay C. doesn’t want “to garbage the place up,” and Karen reminds it should be kept tasteful.

But why even do it at all?

Surely, not a one of us can claim to living in a town where at least one residence didn’t command a drive-by during the Christmas season.

For Karen, such a place was in Bellingham, Wash. Jay C. was a big fan of a display in the Farnsworth subdivision of Soldotna, the town he has called home since he was 13.

Tinkering and building, he said, is “just the elf in me. I’ve always liked fixing stuff. It’s part of who I have been all my life.”

In early September, the rebar and white posts went in down the driveway as always. The white rope was strung, and I’m sure the neighbors began to shake their heads, thinking, “There he goes again” or “Not already!”

“It’s beautiful,” Huntsperger said. “The man is obsessed in the right kind of way. It’s the neatest deal.”

Huntsperger learned the hard way about spoiling a youngster at Christmas.

“My grandson, he’ll be 3 in January,” he said. “I made the mistake of taking him over there. When it came time to leave, he was upset, and the only way I could get him to leave was to promise to take him back the next day.”

Which he did. And did again. And again.


The Smith family's lighted driveway beckons visitors to come in for a closer look. The residence is on Jones Road off Gaswell Road in Soldotna.

M. Scott Moon

“I can’t imagine the amount of labor that’s gone into that.”

The Smiths calculate it pretty much at one to two hours a night, Monday through Friday, and Saturdays since September.

October came, the garage was buzzing with the sound of power tools. This year’s “not so secret project” was under way. Now here is where I make my confession. This lighting thing is contagious! Decorating the gazebo was my idea, after all, the weather was so cruddy this summer we only used it once or twice. And, I did say we needed something to go under it ... a carousel maybe? In my wildest dreams I could have never come up with the 8-foot, spinning marvel, complete with Santa, sleigh, and not one, but eight tiny reindeer, and let us not forget Rudolph with his nose so bright.

There’s not much of a secret project to spring on the neighbors, but making your wife’s dream come true — in the form of Christmas lighting — is special whether anyone knows or not.

“It started out with the gazebo,” Karen said. “I thought maybe we can carry it into the winter and decorate it. And Jay said that’d be cool, but it’d need something big underneath it. I’m thinking tree stand with a plastic blow mold on it, and he comes through with this grand and glorious carousel.”

Jay C. was appreciative of Dennis Barnard, warehouseman for Homer Electric Association in Kenai. Barnard helped him pick out a spool for the base of the carousel.

“The hardest part was getting the electricity to spin, and that’s where George helped me,” Jay C. said. “I had already figured the mechanics with wheels to support the weight, but getting the actual electricity onto the spinning carousel was the hard part.”


Jay C. changes a light to keep the display bright. The Smith's display grows a little each year and has been a multiple winner in the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce lighting contest.

M. Scott Moon

The Smiths become a bit recognizable during yard sale season. Forget those $300 Santas with reindeer displays that can’t be delivered from Outside.

“The coolest find for the carousel was finding another sleigh,” Jay C. said. “I found the sleigh and reindeer for $10.”

The carousel came together in about 2 1/2 months. Pieces were gathered in July.

Early October also meant the front of the garage needed to be cleaned out to make room for the life-sized diorama. In late October, the giant PVC pipe hoops went up over the driveway. The temperature had dropped. Not for a day or two, but for weeks on end taking us into November. Early into this year’s project, my little Santa man had recruited an elf. God bless our son-in-law! At least, now my daughter and I could keep each other company while our husbands put up the 8,865 lights ... . November’s near hurricane force winds brought down the gazebo briefly, only to be put back up, this time reinforced with rebar. The carousel was moved under its well lit frame and things were looking pretty good.

Jay C. and Karen would only ’fess up that Melissa is their daughter, Jesse, the son-in-law.

The display is meant to be drive-by friendly — into the driveway and around the carousel. If Jay C. is out, you might get a candy cane.

“It’s all about the families coming and having memories,” he said.

Ahhh, Thanksgiving. I love autumn! Inside our home was still orange, yellow and smelling of turkey. Our guests were stuffing themselves, no doubt trying to put on an extra pound or two of insulation before we dragged them outside in below-zero weather for the annual lighting ceremony. With all of the cold weather, things were not quite running as smoothly as we had hoped they would.

Jay C. is too good to have a Charlie Brown Christmas. But he got as close as he wanted when it came time for the lighting ceremony.

It is an occasion. Usually, guests go out to the road, whereupon Jay C. begins to use his remotes and light up the neighborhood.

Not this time.

“I couldn’t make it work,” he said of the carousel. “I turned it all the way up, turned them all the way down, and then when I turned it on again, it worked. That was amazing. And, of course, that was 10 minutes after everybody had gone.”

The Smiths laugh at the situation and themselves. All in good fun. It all works fine now.

“It was so cold, I just couldn’t spend enough continuous time messing with the controls,” he said. “We lit it up, and it was spinning, but it was pulsing. Then I finally got the torque set right and now it runs smooth. It was a little frustrating.”

The crowd that night numbered about 11.

“Usually we go out to the street, he pushes all the remotes, and it’s pretty spectacular,” Karen said. “It was so cold, and it takes a while for the inflatables to go up, so everybody was like ‘Push some buttons and we won’t look. Then we’ll turn around and look.’ It was so cold!”


Santa and his reindeer spin on a turntable in the couple's driveway.

M. Scott Moon

This brings us to Dec. 1st. I woke up alone in our bed at 5:30 a.m. ... I could see him out in the driveway working on it, unwavered by the setback, smiling at his pride and joy. I’m almost sure the gazebo will be up and the carousel running again by tonight. And once again, all will be right in his world.

“It’s our gift to our community,” Jay C. said. “We’ve been here for 34 years, and this community has been really good to me and my family. We love it here, and it’s our gift to our community.”

“My joy is seeing his joy,” said Karen.

There’s no thought to life without doing it, or not being able. Score another big point for the son-in-law on that theory.

“Last year, I could not have put up the Christmas lights without Jesse,” Jay C. said. “This year, I couldn’t have done it by myself because it was so doggone cold. He’s been tremendous.”

But what happens if a light has a mind of its own and — gulp — goes out?

“I’ve got more lights that are not up than are up,” Jay C. said. “Pretty much, open any drawer in the house and I can find something for it.”

He’s not joking when he says that, or when he adds, “We wish everybody a merry Christmas from the Smith family, and don’t forget why we celebrate Christmas.”

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