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IN DEPTH: Some people take Christmas displays further than others
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IN DEPTH: Some people take Christmas displays further than others

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Phil and LuAnn Rittenhouse own a farm in between Union Center and Elroy that is “dripping with Christmas.”

“I knew he like decorating for Christmas, but I didn’t know how much until the first year after we got married,” LuAnn Rittenhouse said. “He decorated the inside of our house with everything.”

The couple married in 1993 and lived in a house in Elroy before moving to a farm on Snyder Road in 2001.

“We moved out hear and everything fit into a portion of the front yard,” LuAnn Rittenhouse said. “Each year we added a little more, and it just kept expanding.”

Now the Rittenhouse’s have an expansive collection which includes over 400 blow molds, about 80 artificial trees, more than 50 inflatables, and thousands of lights. The decorations cover multiple buildings, their yard, the trees behind the farm, a hill next to the house, under their deck, and more.

To help defray costs, the Rittenhouse’s have a donation box in front of the house. The box, like everything else, is decorated, with lights saying “thank you” turning on when someone drops a donation in the box.

“The donations go towards helping with the electrical bill, we have rodent damage with the cords so every year we have to buy new cords and lights, and we also go to a lot of rummage sales and get stuff,” LuAnn Rittenhouse said. “We’re very frugal with the donations, trying to make them stretch as long as we can.”

While they go to garage sales for new items, Phil Rittenhouse also builds items for the display. Among the items he has built are a waterfall, stars, a steeple, light up signs, and a manger scene.

“I’ll build stuff, or we’ll pick stuff up at sales, but sometimes we’ll come home and people will have just dropped something off by the house for us to use,” Phil Rittenhouse said.

The Rittenhouse’s also switched to LED lights, with CFL and LED lights in the blow molds.

“Anyone who decorates this much is probably very appreciative of any hints to keep the electrical bill down,” LuAnn Rittenhouse said.

While electricity is still a constant worry, the Rittenhouse’s had a new transformer installed for their house last spring.

“We were always worried we might be in jeopardy of stuff going off in the middle of the night for people driving by,” LuAnn Rittenhouse said. “When they were installing the new transformer, he said if that was over in Mauston it would take care of 20 houses. They wanted to make sure we have enough power.”

The weather, however, can cause additional issues.

“Once they start getting cold we have problems with the LED’s… and the inflatables can get iced and won’t go up,” Phil Rittenhouse said. “Rain is terrible, it makes them ice and then you have to be careful about the fabric ripping.”

The Rittenhouse’s say they are hopeful that visitors understand the house may be dark in bad weather, as it is a safety issue with so many electrical cords, and the weather can ruin the decorations. Each year the Rittenhouse’s add new items to the display, with this year the new items including a gingerbread house, gingerbread men, and some spring horses.

“We try to put things in a story, so the story with the spring horse is the reindeer got loose from the North Pole, so the gingerbread man on the spring horse is a cowboy trying to herd them back home,” LuAnn Rittenhouse said. “It’s nice to try to make little groupings, not just line them all up and have rows and rows of blow molds.”

The Rittenhouse’s start putting up lights in September. They have a few Halloween blow molds, so once those come down they begin putting up the Christmas blow molds, and around the same time put up the artificial trees. The display stays up until the first week of January. They turn the lights on around 5 p.m., and leave them on until 10 p.m.

“It’s a different life for those six weeks…. But we enjoy hearing from people where they come from,” said LuAnn Rittenhouse. “There’s a lot of local people but if they have family members they’ll bring them. We’ve had people from Alaska, foreign exchange students, people from Germany, Holland… it’s fun to see where people come from.”

Reedsburg lights upDriving past Eighth Street and Viking Drive, the backyard of Joan and Randy Check’s house on Canterbury Court in Reedsburg, an array of Christmas lights with shapes of trees, ornaments, arches and candy canes can be seen.

The flashes of light will bounce in silence. Tune in to 90.1 FM and you’ll hear classic Christmas songs like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ synchronize with the flashing lights — almost as if they are dancing on cue.

The Check’s have been putting up the display for nine years. Randy Check said it started small with applying one set of lights on 16 shrubs outside their house. Noticing the shrubs weren’t visible to those driving by, the Check’s decided to turn it up a notch and add lights on their trees.

Those lights didn’t glow or orchestrate to music, which took about three to four years to add, Randy Check said. He said their son encouraged them to add music to the light display.

Randy Check said the reason him and Joan decided to expand the display is because they enjoy the lights and they want other people to enjoy them too.

Over 475 light sets are hooked up to circuit breakers and control boxes that panels all the power sent to about 44,500 individual lights. Using a Windows light animation software package called Vixen, the Check’s control how each light set corresponds with the music, matching certain beats, rhythms and tempos with each set.

The lights are turned on with an automatic timer at about 4:30 p.m. until it shuts off midnight.

Setting up the lights is an entire family affair, with the Check’s three sons and two daughter-in-laws helping apply the lights to each fixture, which usually happens the Friday after Thanksgiving and takes about 250 hours to complete, Randy Check said.

Joan Check said they will receive positive comments about the light display, including a thank you from people who pass by.

“We’ve had other people tell us they bring family members every year just to sit and watch and enjoy,” Joan Check said. “We’ve apparently been entertainment for someone’s Christmas party.”

Randy Check said a co-worker told him the light display “made him happy” as he watched them flash in the night without music.

The Check’s said they try to tweak the display every year to make sure those driving by or watching in the nearby parking lots by can see the display every year. Randy Check said even him and Joan will sit in their car in parking lots at Associated Bank or WCCU Credit Union, places where spectators will commonly park to view the display, to analyze how they can improve it. Another place some people will park is along Eighth Street.

While they review their own display, the Check’s said they also take time to drive around the city to view other Christmas lights put up by residents around the city.

“We enjoy going around and look at other people’s lights even though they don’t flash and they are steady,” Randy Check said. “We like Christmas lights and so we hope other people like them also.”

Outlets bring light

The Outlets at the Dells has long decked the halls for the holiday season, but kicked their efforts into high gear after a change in management groups in 2013. According to general manager Michelle Zuelke, that shift in management prompted the elaborate decorations the mall employs now.

“We’ve always had some decorations since we opened, but the big installation came six years ago when we changed management companies,” Zuelke said. “It is their standard, they really believe in celebrating the holidays with all that is bright and sparkling.”

Craig Management Group, the new owners, brought on a designer from Disneyland to spruce up the mall’s holiday decor. According to Zuelke, the designer first put together the design in July 2013, having the parts shipped over in October of that same year.

The setup started when the parts arrived. Zuelke said the setup team starts putting the display together in mid-October, wiring up the outdoor trees with lights and setting up the hanging decorations on the outer walls of the building.

“Wherever you see a row of lights across our roof, those were set up before Halloween,” Zuelke said. “And then once Halloween is over, everything switches into high gear. We have a great company called Whoville out of Madison… and they come out in full force and they put up all the garland and install the tree, everything after that.”

Whoville also sets up the spotlights at the mall that display swirling snowflakes on the ground as well as a myriad of other decorative touches. According to Zuelke, the company starts and finishes their setup in only a week, weather permitting.

The tree that Whoville sets up is the crown jewel of the whole display. The artificial beast stands at 30 feet, weighs two tons and sports more than 50,000 lights. It’s impossible to miss; the tree stands right in the main entrance of the mall.

According to Zuelke, the tree and the remaining decorations aren’t going anywhere fast. The Whoville lights and tree will remain in place long into January.

“We usually keep all of the garland and the tree and things like that up until Martin Luther King weekend,” Zuelke said. “Then we leave the snowflakes and the perimeter lights up until the end of February. It just adds a little bit of extra light and we love that. It’s just good to have a little bit of extra light.”

Reach Christopher Jardine on Twitter @ChrisJJardine or contact him at 608-432-6591.

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