Brian Wagner likes to visit hardware stores the day after Christmas.
Once inside, he heads for the unsold holiday decorations on the clearance aisle. There’s treasure there.
Last year, in the Casper Menards, he walked down the aisle with his arm stretched out, scooping discounted Christmas lights from the shelf into his cart. A clerk asked, incredulously, whether he actually planned to buy all that stuff.
“Every single one of those things,” he said.
Christmas lights are mere decorations to some. They’re Wagner’s passion. The 40-year-old plans year-round for those cold winter nights when the sun disappears early and snow covers the ground. Then he readies his lights – up to 20,000 strong – and sets them dancing from decorations on his lawn. Hundreds come to watch.
The shows are about more than illumination. They are a performance, with Wagner the meticulous conductor.
“You organize it, you synchronize it and then you sit back and you watch the people enjoy it,” he said.
Flash and flicker
Most Christmas lights simply glow. Switch them on at night and unplug them in the morning.
Wagner’s are different. He molds them into spirals and arches that decorate his yard. Lights line his windows and stretch from his garage to his roof. In the dark, they flash in time to music playing from an FM receiver – 98.1 on the dial – tucked in a corner of his west Casper home.
Resting on a table near his front window is a laptop Wagner uses solely for his light shows. He programs each song by hand with software that resembles a spreadsheet. Check a box, lights turn on. Leave it empty, lights turn off.
There are 32 channels of lights and each box signifies a tenth of one second. Wagner has 35 songs to choose from on his Christmas playlist.
Do the math.
“I probably have several thousand hours in programming in these songs,” he said.
Wagner always loved Christmas lights. As a boy, he’d help his father string them on their Long Island home. The tradition continued as he got older.
“When I had an apartment, everything in my house, in the windows, was lit up and everything,” he said.
Wagner used to live in east Casper, and driving to work, he’d pass a home known for its musical Christmas light shows.
He decided to give it a try.
Wagner turned to the Internet for help, watching videos to see how others blended sound and light. A friend who lived by Casper Mountain also aided him.
In 2009, he used a preprogrammed system to light his home. By the following Christmas, he was producing his own, fully animated shows.
He started with a couple of thousand lights. Now, he guesses between 15,000 and 20,000 decorate his property at Christmas. Powering the entire production requires a whopping 75 extension cords.
Light installation starts around September – sometimes even earlier. His daughters, 8 and 12, help, but Wagner does most of the work himself. He runs a similar show for Halloween, so he’ll string as many lights as he can for both holidays at the same time.
On Oct. 31, after the trick-or-treaters left, he took down the Halloween decorations. Christmas went up the next day.
Everyone makes the same assumption. Brian Wagner’s electricity bills must be insane.
Hardly. At his old home, summer electricity bills would run about $150. They’d drop to about $105 around Christmas.
“All those rumors your mom told you about turning the light switch on and off, they’re false,” he said.
Not that he’d let a pricey electricity bill stop him. This is a man who considered his Christmas lights when shopping for a new home earlier this year. He needed space for the show.
“I looked at the lots on the cul-de-sac,” he said, motioning to a street adjacent to his home. “They were too small.”
His corner lot affords plenty of curbside for audiences. Wagner estimates 400 people came to watch his lights on Halloween – his first in the neighborhood.
“It was weird at first, having people sit out in front of your house … but you get used to it,” he said. “It doesn’t bother us. The kids love it.”
The shows are about more than entertainment. For Christmas, he collects donations for Joshua’s Storehouse, a local charity. Last year, people dropped off 480 pounds of food.
He’s already up to 110 pounds of donations this holiday season.
The productions keep growing, and so do his plans. Wagner now intends to keep the light shows going through Jan. 2, with contemporary music after Christmas.
Then it will be time to take everything down and wait for fall.
“I’m going to be bummed,” he said. “One of these years I’m going to work on … one for the Fourth of July.”