By Amanda Clark and Raphael Beretta, with photography by Caylena Cahill and J.J. Cady
There is no other place in the world that takes the holidays to this level.
The ERDAJT Holiday Light Display has been a must-see spectacle in the Hudson Valley for over 25 years, and is one of the best ways to celebrate the holidays. More than 6,000 lights evoke feelings of hope and beauty throughout the season. All the display’s complex choreography — set to 256 different songs — are done by the Gay family.
In 1995, first-time father Timothy Gay was determined to make Christmas magical for his daughter. A Christmas light display seemed like the perfect way to do this. He began with 600 lights; five years later, it grew to 5,000; then to 73,000. Now, the ERDAJT Holiday Light Display holds the title in the Guinness Book of World Records for most holiday lights — at 686,000 lights and counting.
Each year, Timothy and his wife, Grace, along with their children, Emily Raejean, Daniel Arthur, and John Timothy (a.k.a. ERDAJT), dedicate nine weeks to setting up the display. To accomplish this, Tim and co. install 1,770 individually controlled items in the display using hardware from Light-O-Rama. The songs are choreographed down to 1/20 of a second — meaning that every item performs 20 different tasks per second. This manual process takes anywhere from five to 30 hours depending on the complexity of the song, and the programmer’s ambition.
Tim works as an engineer for GLOBALFOUNDRIES, and, not surprisingly, “the kids are all pursuing jobs in engineering and computer science!” he says.
Everyone in the family has taken a crack at choregraphing the lights. As it stands, Tim has sequenced 170 songs, Dan has done 48, John 42, and the rest of the fam each has a few to their name. “It has become such a central part of my life, I can’t imagine not doing it,” says Emily. “I drive 10 hours each weekend starting in September just to set up lights! But it’s really about the aspect of family, tradition, and community. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Some of the more recent songs added to the playlist include “Dance Monkey” by Tones and I, “Lost in the Woods” by Jonathan Groff, and “The Scientist” by Coldplay.
Songs don’t have to be explicitly about Christmas to make the list. They try to include what’s popular and interesting to work with, but also tell a story with the music. “We pick songs based on what the songs mean to us — positive messages with themes of peace, kindness, and family,” Tim says. Coldplay is a standout favorite — 33 songs have been used over the years — but sweet songs from classic artists like George Harrison, The Temptations, Whitney Houston, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong make regular appearances. Visitors can even check the schedule ahead of time to hear their favorite songs. What a wonderful world, indeed. New tunes for 2021 include “Eye of the Tiger,” “Blinding Lights,” and “Sunflower.”
Last year, in addition to being the display’s 25th anniversary, was an especially important time for the Gay family. “The response to the display this year has been the highest ever. Many people are so delighted to have the display to enjoy in such a difficult year,” Tim says. To really send a positive message to the community, he and his family added a 30-foot-long, three-foot-high “Merry Christmas” sign that shines with 8,000 lights in any color you can imagine.
What’s more, representatives from the Union Vale Fire Department are onsite with masks as they collect donations. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been collected for Hudson Valley charities at the Gay residence over the years, including the Children’s Home of Poughkeepsie and the Dutchess County Alzheimer’s Association.
One of the family’s favorite parts is seeing the happiness their work brings to visitors, especially when there’s a proposal. “It’s a great time when you’re having a party in your home [in past years], and a happy couple comes in and says, ‘We just got engaged in your driveway!’” says Dan.
The pond is a fan-favorite part of the display for the way it reflects all of the beautiful colors.
In 2017, the Gays unveiled their largest element to date, the “spherical wonder” that hovers over the center of the glimmering pond. “In 2000, my brother Brian was visiting at Thanksgiving and I asked him to help put up the lights,” says Tim. “He did. The following year when he returned, he said he would only help if we put the lights around the pond instead of out by the road. Once we saw the lights reflecting, I knew I needed more lights. That’s what caused the expansion from 5,000 lights to about 73,000 lights.”
Catching a glimpse of the dedicated family setting up is an impressive sight. “One year when I was about 12, I was putting lights on a bush near our pond,” recalls Dan. “It was by a particularly icy area, so I was moving a bit slow. My Dad came over and said, ‘Why are you so slow? Let me show you how it’s done.’ He proceeded to push me aside, furiously hang up lights, and then found himself slipping and falling straight into the freezing water. After that, I continued my slow and steady pace, and he rushed in for a shower.”
The Gay family accepted the Guinness World Record for “Most Lights on a Residential Property” in November of 2014, and has held onto the title. Due to the frenzy of cars that circle the Hudson Valley home throughout the month of December, Tim took the initiative in 2010 and engaged with local law enforcement to mitigate problems caused by traffic.
Get in the holiday spirit with some socially distant fun at the ERDAJT Holiday Lights Display, every night of the week through December 28 from 4:45-9:30 p.m. (10:30 p.m. on Fridays).
ERDAJT Holiday Lights Display
8 Patrick Drive, Lagrangeville