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Behind the scenes with one of Lansing's biggest holiday light shows

December 8, 2023
Josh Tkaczyk poses in front of his house near Mason, Michigan, on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Tkaczyk's house is covered in Christmas decorations and a speaker plays Christmas music that syncs up with the lightshow.
Josh Tkaczyk poses in front of his house near Mason, Michigan, on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Tkaczyk's house is covered in Christmas decorations and a speaker plays Christmas music that syncs up with the lightshow. —
Photo by Jack Armstrong | The State News

With the holidays just around the corner, people see more holiday decorations and lights around town, but some people go above and beyond in decorating their homes. 

Meet Josh Tkaczyk, the mastermind behind the light show in Mason. Tkaczyk is a Michigan State University alumni with a computer science degree, using his coding experience towards his hobby of creating light shows.

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Josh Tkaczyk shows off his Christmas lights at his house near Mason, Michigan, on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Tkaczyk said he's been going all-out on Christmas decorations since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the pandemic, Tkaczyk has been putting on light shows with some help from his family. He said it all started because of the lack of things to do during COVID-19 and most activities being cancelled. 

Today, people can drive up to the house and tune into 98.1 FM radio to watch a light show coded to classic Christmas tunes.

After the few years of experience, the holiday lights have grown more and more complex over the years. The main attraction of the show is a large, wired Christmas tree in the front yard with multiple homemade Charlie Brown character cutouts in front of it as well as arches of lights on either side. 

“My wife and two sons help set up that tree right there, which is actually held by a very large pole," Tkaczyk said. "It's pretty heavy. It takes at least two people just to carry it out there, and then we got to tilt it up and then tie it down with rope so that the wind won’t knock it off.”

It takes another day of setup for the area by the front of the house. There are four large light bulb cutouts with specific strand lights poked through, all of which are coded to depict Charlie Brown and his friends making faces.

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Characters from Charles Schulz's famous "Peanuts" comic strip in front of a series of string lights shaped like a Christmas tree in Josh Tkaczyk's lawn near Mason, Michigan, on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Tkaczyk said he makes all the characters himself, tracing and painting them onto a piece of wood.

In the garage, Tkaczyk set up a projector through the window that plays Christmas-themed videos for passersby. He also has strings of Christmas lights strung up along the roof of the house.

All together, he said physical set up takes about two days.

One very complicated aspect of the show is a large matrix light board, coded to depict various patterns and colors according to the music. It can be coded to display a kaleidoscope image or starburst image, but Tkaczyk said his favorite is the matrix can be coded to make it look like it’s snowing.

Just beneath the matrix is the newest addition to the light show: a lit up sign displaying “98.1” to tell visitors which station to tune in to.

Coding is the most complicated aspect to the show

Tkaczyk said he uses the program xLights, which can all be done from his laptop. Each light within the setup has a certain address that can be coded to display certain lights at certain times.

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Josh Tkaczyk explains the program he uses to run his elaborate Christmas light display near Mason, Michigan, on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Tkaczyk, a full-time programmer, has a 3D model of the decorations in his front lawn, and he uses it to control the lights.

The program's setup is a grid of the yard, allowing him to drag and drop new additions and program them with ease. The program itself is connected to the controller.

“The lights are actually controlled by these boxes, they call them controllers, that is a signal from my computer or you can load it onto like an SD card thar will basically store the information that it needs to generate based-off of whatever like song you have,” Tkaczyk said.

Each light has to be arranged in a certain pattern due to every light having a specific address, allowing the program to communicate with each light. He said the light structures are connected by buried lines for the electrical data lines.

“There's the regular power, but then there's a third line that essentially is the data line and it tells each one of these lights what to do and at what time," Tkaczyk said. “When you look at the application, it's fun because you can drag and drop and you can tell it, I want it to do a flashing thing or a little Kaleidoscope or a starburst.”

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The program takes over the most complicated aspects of the show, such as the movements of  each individual bulb. However, Tkaczyk said he needs to count how many bulbs are on each strand and how many strands he needs to program. Some of his light strands come pre-counted.

Tkaczyk said he was inspired into doing light shows by a show in Mason: The Brown Family Lights. Additionally, he said his family has always decorated the house and people began sending him ideas on how to add the light show to his house. 

Price and time can vary from house to house. Tkaczyk said some extravagant lightshows can mean $15,000 to $20,000 on material and possibly 20 hours of coding.

Tkaczyk said he tends to lean more towards a “homegrown” method with his homemade cutouts. He also said lights “aren't really that expensive.” 

The pole the holds up the large Christmas tree of lights was most expensive as well as the controller boxes, being the computer behind the whole show. 

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The circuit that allows Josh Tkaczyk to run hundreds of Christmas lights at his home near Mason, Michigan, photographed on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Tkaczyk said drivers sometimes stop to look at the variety of festive lights that adorn his house.

The light show is programmed to start around 6 p.m. and is turned off around 10 p.m. as to not disturb the neighbors with the flashing lights. He said he has never received a complaint.

The light show receives about two or three visitors a night, but once a year, the family schedules a night to hand out hot chocolate and cookies to visitors, which is scheduled to be Dec. 22 at 530 E. Columbia Road in Mason.

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