Every night in December in the Cypress Ridge neighborhood, cars and golf carts start to line the edges of the curbs on both sides of Lombard Mills Lane around 5:45 p.m. All eyes are fixed on 43 Neligh Lane, the home of Tom and Erin Sharman.
As dusk turns into darkness, the “why” behind the hubbub starts to take shape. LED lights on the house begin a second-by-second one-minute countdown, followed by a barrage of the senses filled with a spectrum of colors and 6,500 LED lights, all seemingly dancing to music.
If you drive up and just see the lights, it’s mighty impressive. But tune your radio to 99.3 FM and that’s when the mind-blowing begins.
“It is so cool every time I can see that person experience it for the first time,” said Tom, the mastermind behind the Sharman Family Light Show, now in its fourth year. “I grew up in Orlando as that kid that was wowed by the neighbor’s Christmas lights. It just sparked so much creativity and imagination, I told myself one day I was going to be the one behind the show.”
Sharman grew up admiring static light displays a la Clark Griswold from “Christmas Vacation.” As technology evolved, he started noticing the LED displays becoming more elaborate for the holidays.
He began planning and learning about the technology behind the displays while still in Orlando.
When he landed a job as a process control engineer with International Paper and moved his wife and daughter Kaylee, now 14, to Bluffton in 2017, he decided to put his research into action.
“I saw this guy that explained the whole process on YouTube, all the how-to, and I just absorbed it. I’ve always been kind of a tech nerd, so this was right up my alley,” Sharman said. He automated assembly lines for IP, so how hard could a little light automation be? Uh, very.
“It’s involved, a lot of hours to learn. I Googled plenty, found a Facebook community of enthusiasts that use the XLights shareware to control their light shows and it just took off from there,” he said. “But even after learning the how and why, it’s still a lot of time to put it together.”
In all, Sharman estimated he spent 1,000 hours the first year just coordinating the show and programming all the light sequences. The first year was a bit simpler, with a mega light tree in the yard. The second year is when the show really blossomed, as he added in the house outline lights and the arches and the talking Christmas light bulbs, four epic slabs above his garage lined with lights that are programmed to sing along to the music.
“It’s done with phenomes, which is essentially like stop-motion animation,” he said. “Every word in the song is a series of actions that are programmed into the lights to make the bulbs appear to be singing the songs.”
He added candy canes and presents and mini trees in year 3, but the stars of the show and the attraction for the kids are the singing bulbs. Sharman curates a list of 18 songs with input from Erin and Kaylee. About 85 percent of the songs are Christmas-themed, but Sharman mixes in current music like “Butter” from BTS and “Bang” from AJR, along with favorites by groups like Pentatonix that work well in showing off the magic of all four of the singing bulbs.
And Sharman likes to throw some tricks into the mix to keep everyone engaged.
“I throw in something like ‘Thunderstruck’ from AC/DC to keep the Dads interested. At first, a lot are like, ‘Oh, Christmas lights, yay,’ but then they hear the AC/DC and they start singing along with the bulbs,” Sharman said.
Sharman breaks the shows into 10-minute segments, usually three songs, as he’s found that’s about as long as cars will stay to watch. But if you wanted to, you could watch new animated light choreography from 6 to 8:15 p.m. each night.
The show has been a word-of-mouth sensation, as Sharman has tried to keep traffic manageable for his neighbors. The lights are not visible from space like the Griswolds, so the brightness impact to surrounding neighbors is minimal.
“We were the first house built on the street and we’ve made friends with as many folks as we can and been respectful to their needs,” he said. “We’re ending the show an hour earlier this year after a pregnant neighbor asked for an earlier end to the crowds on the street. I’m doing this to bring joy to folks and challenge my inner nerd to achieve that, so we don’t advertise this other than alerting folks on Facebook.”
The show hit Tik Tok last year, as Sharman was spurred on by Kaylee to post a few videos of the show. His first video garnered more than a million views and 35,000 followers.
The big question everyone asks: How much does it add to the electric bill each year? The answer makes jaws drop.
“It’s LED technology, so it’s really only about $20 per month more. Honestly, this is living proof of why the electric companies are trying to get us all to convert to LED,” he said. “These lights run on 12-volt DC power as opposed to typical 120-volt lights.”
Don’t be fooled though; this is far from a cheap hobby. Sharman said he’s met every walk of life in the XLight community, from janitors to multi-millionaires – all different economic backgrounds, but all with one thing in common: a child-like fascination with Christmas.
“When you see that joy you can bring folks, turning a bad day around or creating memories, or folks planning their holidays around the show, it’s what it’s all about,” he said. The family sits in lawn chairs in the driveway the first night of the show to greet visitors and make sure the show is running smoothly. “I love seeing the kids dancing along to the lights. One girl this year, she memorized the whole show. Her Mom said she won’t go to bed without coming by to watch.”
Sharman began raising money for charity two years ago, with the modest proceeds from donations going to Give Kids the World, an 89-acre resort outside of Orlando that works with Make-a-Wish to give kids and families one last vacation together.
“I volunteered there with my church and it’s just an amazing organization, so whatever we can give, we give,” he said.
Sharman said his wife has been the angel in indulging this elaborate hobby. She’s just as big on Christmas and handles the inside decorating while outside is Sharman’s domain.
“I’m funny. I can’t do lights inside and I hate all the tree needles,” he said. “Seeing the tech come alive and the people loving it, that’s my thing. We’ll continue growing it as long as people keep digging it.”
For more information about the light show, see “Sharman Family Light Show” on Facebook and @sharmanfamilylightshow on Tik Tok.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. email@example.com.