116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
WALKER — Blue Creek Christmas would bring Clark Griswold to his knees, sobbing with spirit and joy.
The brainchild of Aaron Maue, 46, and his wife, Deb, 48, they were so nervous about putting up the first display 10 years ago, that they kept it under wraps so the neighbors wouldn’t know what was about to happen to their serene slice of country 20 miles north of Cedar Rapids at 4942 Blue Creek Ct., just off Center Point Road.
“We surprised them the first year,” Maue said. ”I had always put up lights — and a fair number of lights. But then in 2011, as I was getting things set up, I was putting up a lot more lights. And so they recognized that. They had no idea that I was setting it to music and that we were going to do something a little bit more grandiose than we had been doing.“
So the Maues put together a kickoff party and invited everyone from the six neighboring houses to be the first to see the show, featuring 18,000 lights. It was such a hit that the neighbors immediately began posting on social media, inviting their friends to come see what the Maues had done.
What: Blue Creek Christmas
Where: 4942 Blue Creek Ct., Walker
When: Through Jan. 9; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5:30 p.m. to midnight Dec. 24 and 25
Cost: Free, donations accepted for Families Helping Families of Iowa
“And that's really what started others coming out to see that,” Maue said. “That wasn't our original intent — and so they helped create the monster that is the show that we have right now.”
And what a show it is, beginning at 5:30 p.m. and running through Jan. 9.
It’s obvious Maue has a degree in electrical engineering. More than 100,000 LED lights dance across his lawn, faces pop up on Christmas trees to sing their songs, videos shine on two screens, showing holiday scenes and patriotic footage, and even the rooftop, roofline and basketball stanchion are adorned.
The show lasts “just shy” of 30 minutes, and features eight holidays songs — different each year — plus the standard “Christmas Vacation” from the classic 1989 National Lampoon film. Each cycle is repeated for the duration of the evening’s hours.
So this is not just a drive-by show. It’s a stop and sit a spell in your car, with the heater on and the radio tuned to 97.1 FM to hear the music and voice-overs. And if you’re real good, Santa may just stop by your vehicle to say hello. As he leaves his house to start his rounds in his red suit, he’s heard children exclaim, “Santa lives in Iowa.”
It not just the Maue house that glows. All of the houses in the division get in on the act. A couple years after starting his show, Maue went to a housing association meeting to float the idea of making their lights dance, too. Before he could ask them, they asked him, and since about 2013 or 2014, he has animated their displays, too.
Conduit for giving
This holiday project has never been about making money, and admission is free, but so many people were wanting to give something that the second year, Maue put up a donation mail slot on a large sign next to the driveway, and asked the neighbors to nominate and vote on the recipient.
That tradition continues, and this year 100 percent of the donations will go to Families Helping Families of Iowa, a nonprofit organization supporting children in foster care.
“It's not surprising that when people are out here, they feel a little more generous,” Maue said, “and so maybe we give them an outlet for that generosity. We're kind of a conduit. We're not the recipients.”
For everything Maue has figured out, he hasn’t come up with a car-counting system, so he bases it on the donations. Not everyone drops some money in the slot — and that’s fine — but he also has received a $100 bill.
“There's certainly a wide range of those donations,” he said. “But using that as kind of a surrogate, we're guessing somewhere between 2,500 to 4,000 cars a year come through.”
In the past nine years, they’ve collected more than $110,000, and in six of those years, they topped $10,000. Last year was the biggest “by a long shot,” Maue said, with donors giving more than $24,000, which was split between the Walker and Center Point fire departments.
The busiest nights tend to be the Friday and Saturday nights in the two weekends before Christmas, he noted, but cars already were jockeying for prime viewing spots around 5 p.m. on an unseasonably warm Tuesday night. Luckily, the display suffered little damage in the windstorm that blew through the area the next night.
“I had spent about four hours (Dec. 15) adding extra support to a few of the things outside,” he reported via Facebook on Dec. 16. “I’m not sure if it was necessary or not, but the result was that I only had about 1.5 hours of repair work to do today before the show started.”
Behind the scenes
So what does it take to put this all together, then take it all apart? Time. Lots and lots of time. And not as much money to the utility company as you might think.
Maue said the display, which runs this year from Nov. 28 to Jan. 9 this year, just raises the bill $150 to $200 dollars, which “is only a small percentage of the overall cost.” He added that they invest more money in the display each year, “but for our own sanity, we haven't tracked that very well.”
This is his fun sideline to his work as the general manager for Collins Aerospace Defense Sustainment business, serving defense customers in the United States and globally.
The light display is basically a year-round project for the family, which includes children Abbey, 19, Faith, 18, Sydney, 14, and Gabe, 12. They drive around to look at other displays for enjoyment, but also to see what might spark ideas for next year, just like a much smaller display they had been visiting in southern Illinois, where Aaron and Deb grew up. After a couple of years, they decided in 2010 that they should give it a try.
“Within about a week … I had ordered the first piece of hardware so I could start playing and learning and understanding,” he said.
Maue goes online looking for gadgetry and elements that he can incorporate into the pieces he builds, making them collapsible for easy storing in the garage attic, garage shelving and in a nearby shed. Then the first weekend in October, they start putting them up so the display can be ready to go the Sunday after Thanksgiving. When the weather cooperates, it only takes about 10 days to take it all down.
It’s grown from 18,000 lights the first year, with 64 individually controlled elements run by four controllers, to now, with 480 channels and more than 100,000 lights. The newer pixel lights can be controlled individually. The technology has been the biggest growth area, he said, but he doesn’t want his family’s display to get out of hand.
“For us, it's about maintaining the integrity of it as a Christmas show and not becoming overly commercial looking,” he said, “so still being able to maintain that feel while incorporating some of those new technologies and those new elements, that's been really important.”
While the display is intricate, the meaning behind it is simple.
“It's not just about flashing the lights in a cool way, it's about helping the viewers emotionally connect to it,” he said. “What we really hope is that it’s just a little bit of time that they can take a breath, relax, disconnect from some of their worries and bothers, and just enjoy something for what it is.”
And make memories.
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