What's on Tap

What's on Tap

Graduate student creates 'famous light show' at his family's Durham home

Posted December 8, 2016

Photo from Michael Shoaf

— Most of us drive around town at least a couple of times each holiday season searching for homes with spectacular decorations and light displays. But graduate student Michael Shoaf would rather have the house everyone travels miles to see.

When Shoaf comes home from the University of Illinois for Thanksgiving break, a big dinner is the last thing on his mind. Instead, he works hard to set up his annual Christmas lights display, set to music, at his family's Durham home. The huge show has to be set up quickly in his 10-day-long fall break.

What started out as just some small string lights around the gutters has now turned into a masterpiece totaling about 115,000 lights.

"I have always had a passion for lights, and this was an easy way to put my passion on display," Shoaf said. "Riding around and seeing other houses all lit up when I was a kid inspired me."

Shoaf's mother, Diana, said her son started helping with the lights when he was very young. By middle school, he was in complete control of the display.

"Michael's first word was light. Not mom or dad but light! Whenever we went to Home Depot he would point to the sections with the lights and ceiling fans with lights, and we would have to go back and forth and look at them all," Diana Shoaf said.

For the family display, Shoaf uses a specific Christmas light software that is timeline-based.

"I import a piece of music, and then I tell it how I want every single Christmas light to blink, fade, chase," he said. "The layout is similar to an excel spreadsheet, where your columns are compared to the sections of music and the rows are each individual Christmas strand."

"My favorite part is right before I turn the show on. I get this feeling that is unexplainable and makes me feel like a kid at Disney World again. I see this house that is completely dark and know that any moment it is going to be so bright it could be seen from the moon," Shoaf said.

The trickiest part of setting up the display is the pixel LED lights.

Those "are much more advanced, and every single bulb needs to be accounted for in the computer," Shoaf said.

Michael is working on his graduate degree at the University of Illinois in, quite fittingly, lighting design.

"I am very proud of Michael, which is why I put up with all this chaos at this time of year," Diana Shoaf said. "We have gotten so many thank you notes, some that would put you to tears, that are very personal and that talk about how the lights and music bring them so much joy."

The Shoaf family's Christmas lights show runs through Jan. 5 at 3518 Donnigale Ave. The lights are on nightly between 5:30 and 9:30 p.m. To watch the lights "dance" in sync to Christmas music, tune into the FM radio station 104.5.

The Shoaf family asks that visitors coming to see the show stay on the right side of the road at all times to allow an open lane for leaving traffic. They also ask guests to be respectful of their neighbors so that they can continue to keep the show going every year.

Want to see even more Christmas lights? Check out our map of other light shows in the area, and tell us about your favorites.

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