Lake Linda’s Christmas Lights might be hidden away in Hampstead, but word about the annual show is getting out, especially now that they’re being featured on ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s many travelers on U.S. Highway 17 unknowingly driving past one of southeastern North Carolina’s best musical Christmas light shows. Nestled behind a small tree line across the highway from Surf City’s Lowe’s Home Improvement store and next to Bojangles’ restaurant is the half-hidden entrance to a Christmas wonderland.
In fact, according to Mike and Tonia Register, creators of the display, “Many people tell us that they didn’t know about us until they pulled into Bojangles’ to get something to eat and noticed the lights.” This prompted them to jokingly refer to their labor of love as “Hampstead’s Best-Kept Secret.”
What began as a few homemade metal shapes outlined with lights to enhance the spirit of Christmas for their three children when they were young eventually caught the attention of neighbors and friends.
“There really wasn’t anywhere locally that offered a drive-through light display back then,” Mike says, “so we kept adding a little bit more every year. We never intended it to get this large, but when we saw how much joy and hope it offers to people, we just kept going.”
Fast forward to 2018, when they welcomed 9,000 vehicles onto their property for the six-week season. In 2019, that number almost doubled to 16,000 vehicles (these statistics are thanks to the official road vehicle counter that the Registers’ now-grown children gifted to them).
The Big Reveal
This year, the number of visitors is expected to jump much higher following the airing of ABC’s season eight premiere episode of The Great Christmas Light Fight, which will feature the Lake Linda’s Christmas Lights as one of the judged displays.
“Filming the episode was lots of fun, but also stressful,” Tonia says, referring to getting everything set up earlier than usual and having to acquire their own reveal crowd (comprised of people who could keep mum about the filming for several months). “But everyone on the film crew from LA, including Carter Oosterhouse (the judge), and the Wilmington film studio were so nice and respectful.”
Mike is quick to clarify that they’ve never done the annual light display in an effort to make a name for themselves. “It’s never been about us; it’s always been to promote the true meaning of Christmas and encourage others,” he says. Tonia agrees, stating, “We never applied to be on The Great Christmas Light Fight show. The producers from LA somehow heard about us and called us for two to three years asking us to participate before we finally agreed to do it.”
Although decorating begins in earnest the end of August (while being mindful of hurricane season and the possibility of damaging winds), it takes all year to fully prepare for the display that encompasses almost 9 acres of the family’s property. Decorations are stored in three 40-foot Conex shipping containers, a garage and Santa’s House. The cords alone are stored in the beds of two Chevy pickup trucks.
Because it is such a large undertaking, they leave some of the lights up year-round as well. This turned into an extra benefit this year when everyone in our area was urged to shelter-in-place due to COVID-19. “We wanted to cheer people up a bit so we posted on our Facebook page that if anyone wanted to take a drive, we would turn our lights on in the evenings,” Mike says. “We were surprised at how many people actually showed up during that time.”
As one would expect, there are lots of lights to check and/or replace (Tonia estimates 200,000+; some have guessed closer to a million, but no one has offered to actually count them all), new frames to make, decorations to coordinate and music to select. Some of the behind-the-scene activities that most visitors don’t consider include learning computer software (Mike handles the pixels/RGB display on his computer while Tonia blends music to the display on her computer), managing 30 different controllers (each with 16 outputs, all without timers), and trying to repair the driveway.
Keep in mind that Mike and Tonia own and operate their own business as well, so all of this light display work is done in the evenings and on weekends, with a few vacation days thrown in. “Every year I wonder how we’re going to get it all done in time,” Tonia says, laughing. But thanks to family and friends, it all comes together.
“There’s a phrase that ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’” Mike says, “and in our case, it takes a community to build a light show. We couldn’t do it by ourselves.”
Indeed, they are quick to give credit to both the Town of Surf City and Pender County officials who have “bent over backwards” to help them in many ways, including obtaining permits and getting police to help direct traffic on high-volume nights.
More Than Lights
Although the light show is definitely the main attraction, the Registers believe in helping others and offer their visitors the opportunity to do the same. Every year they place a Toys for Tots donation box near Santa’s House so that visitors can drop off new toys for needy boys and girls. A separate monetary donation box is also provided; the monies received are divided between the local Autism Support and Programs (ASAP) in Rocky Point and offsetting the costs of paying the electric bill (the light show adds $1,500/month to their household bill) and buying new lights.
The Registers also believe in the hope that the Christmas season brings. When Mike’s mother was undergoing cancer treatments, Mike saw firsthand how the lights and the sound of children’s laughter outside lifted her spirits, prompting him to name the 5-acre pond Lake Linda in her honor.
Mike encourages everyone, especially those who are going through a challenging time, to come for a visit. “The lights do make you feel better,” he says.
Want to see it?
FB page: facebook.com/LakeLindasChristmasLights
FB group: facebook.com/groups/SurfCityHampsteadChristmasLights
Where: 218 Old House Road, Hampstead
When: Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day; dusk to 10 pm weeknights; dusk to 11 pm weekends
Cost: Free but donations are accepted
- Be patient, especially closer to Christmas
- Santa makes frequent visits to Santa’s House (the schedule varies; be sure to check the Facebook page for up-to-date info)
- Please park in designated areas and keep trash in your vehicles
- Weeknights tend to be less busy than weekends
- Tune your radio to 89.5 FM
Photography by Laura Glantz