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A fitting holiday story for 2020

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The disappointed should know: Bill Vaughan tried. He tried despite a pandemic. He tried despite a bout of pneumonia. He tried despite knowing we were still in 2020, the year that took from us the Notorious RBG, Black Panther and Alex Trebek.

During the only other year when health issues prevented Bill Vaughan from putting up his usual lights, a display in his yard read, "Sorry no lights." (Photograph by Bill Vaughan)

For more than 15 years, people have driven by Vaughan's house in Alexandria, Virginia, during this time of year, expecting to marvel at his display of lights. Although the word "display" doesn't quite capture it. It was more of an "experience" of lights.

His was not a yard filled with funny, air-filled Santas or gnomes. There was not a grinning Grinch in sight.

In his yard, there were twinkling stars, leaping reindeer and flying birds, each of their forms welded by Vaughan's hands and their movements set in sync by him to different songs broadcast into passing cars tuned to the right radio station.

There were at least 450,000 lights, strung together with more than ten miles of wiring. What looked like one deer jumping was actually 17 different figures lit up one after another. One flapping bird was in reality 40.

The stars alone numbered more than 260.

Vaughan didn't set out to have that house. As he tells it, when he was dating his future wife, she commented on how he didn't have a Christmas tree. That was about 27 years ago. Each year since, he has added to his holiday decorations, and eventually the display grew from one that he describes as "normal" to one that saw cars lined along his street.

"Probably 16 or 17 years ago, it started to be, 'You got to go see this house,'" Vaughan, a 65-year-old father of two grown children, tells me on a recent morning. "When I first started doing it, I did it for my family. I never really thought that it could mean something for someone else."

That changed, he says, when a volunteer at the nursing home across the street from his house walked over after one long-ago Christmas. Vaughan had figured some of the home's residents had probably watched him, out of boredom, put up the lights. But the volunteer told him about one woman who had eagerly tracked his progress each day.

"She started crying and said, 'I want to thank you for making the last few days of her life so joyful,'" Vaughan recalls. "That's when it struck me that this meant more than what I thought."

Over the years, he has seen children come with their parents and later return with their own kids. He has also watched his display appear on TV after he won ABC's Great Christmas Light Fight in 2018.

That victory is noted on the website Holly's Tacky Christmas Lights, which features northern Virginia homes with standout yard displays. On the site's main page, in the most prominent spot, appears a photo of Vaughan's illuminated Collingwood Road home.

All of these details are important for you to know to understand why, when Vaughan recently found himself lying face down in a small creek in front of his house, unable to move his left leg, he cried.

The tears weren't for the pain of falling off a 16ft ladder. That would hit him later. They were for the realisation that the lights wouldn't come on this year.

"I knew right then, sitting in the creek, I knew it was over," says Vaughan, who bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. "That's what was so heartbreaking. It's devastating. I wanted to do this so badly. I figured if I was ever going to do my display, it had to be this year."

In a year that has brought extreme lows and inspiring highs, Vaughan's story is neither. What it is, though, is a holiday story fitting for 2020.

In this crummy, joy-gobbling year, it is not surprising that a bright spot on the globe would go dark. Also not surprising is that a community would take notice and want to help. Time and again, this year has seen darkness followed by bits of light — and that, too, is part of Vaughan's story.

Vaughan has had pneumonia diagnosed four times in the past three years. When he developed it this year while still working as a general contractor, he worried that his laboured breathing was the result of Covid-19. But a test for the coronavirus, to his relief, came back negative.

In the summer, he was still recovering when people started asking him whether he planned to do the display. "You'll know when the lights come on" became his standard reply. The community had rallied behind him when he won the Great Christmas Light Fight competition, but his health had caused him to skip last year. He put up instead a sad display that read, "Sorry no lights".

This year, he was determined to avoid that.

In July, he started working on the playlist, and by September, passers-by could see strands of lights start to go up.

In November, Vaughan was ahead of schedule and putting the last of 90 strings of lights on a tree, when a leg of the ladder he stood on sunk into the ground. Before that day, he had never broken a bone. When he hit the creek, the impact shoved his ankle upward into his leg. After Vaughan realised he couldn't move it, he fished his mobile phone from his pocket and called his wife, who was working from home.

On November. 20, after two surgeries on his leg and one to his abdomen, Vaughan posted a message on the Collingwood Lights Facebook page to let the public know there would be nothing to see.

"I so wanted to do my display this year to maybe raise a few spirits," he wrote, before explaining what happened. "It is so disheartening looking out over the yard knowing it will remain dark and I know a lot people have driven by and have kept track of my progress in anticipation of the light-up. Please help me pass the word that although there are decorations up this year, sadly, we will be dark."

More than 350 messages followed, offering him well wishes and thanking him for the past displays.

"We attended your lights for the first time a few years ago and I watched my mother’s face transform into that of a child on Christmas Day!!" wrote one person.

"We have enjoyed your lights for years — from the oldest members of our family to the very youngest," wrote another.

"We love you for trying to bring us joy," wrote yet another.

The messages also contained offers to help. Someone asked if they could deliver food. A nurse told him to let her know if he or his wife needed a hand. One neighbour, Patricia Hoover-Rollins, created a GoFundMe page.

Hoover-Rollins, whose 20-year-old son and his cousins grew up seeing the display each year, says her hope was to collect enough money to cover the cost of a crew to help Vaughan either put up the rest of his lights or pull down what he had started. As of Friday, the fund had raised more than $4,300, and Hoover-Rollins had received e-mails from electricians and firefighters offering their services. Vaughan had also heard from a man in the military who was willing to take two weeks of leave to help.

"I can't express how grateful I am for all the outpouring and support," Vaughan says. "It astounds me . . . It warms my heart. It really does."

He knows people are still hoping to see the display go up. When I initially reached out to him, I thought that it still might, that maybe his story would be one that started with darkness and ended on a literal bright note.

But we are still in 2020.

Between the pneumonia and the broken leg bone, Vaughan has lost a significant amount of weight and strength, and is not yet able to move more than a few feet from his bed without help. Even if he could spend hours outside, he says, he does all his own wiring, using an antiquated system, and couldn't explain it to someone else.

So, he has accepted that this dark year will end on a fitting dark note.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

"Now, all I can do is think 2021 is the year," he says. "Hopefully."

Until then, on Holly's Tacky Christmas Lights site, if a person clicks on the page for Vaughan's house, they will find pictures of his past displays.

They will also see a newly added description: "Dark for 2020 but not for lack of trying ..."

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining the Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism

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Published December 14, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated December 12, 2020 at 10:36 pm)

A fitting holiday story for 2020

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