Mark Ritter is a low-key kind of guy who, when speaking, comes off as a cross between Eeyore the Donkey and Bob Newhart — steady, matter-of-fact and unexcitable.
But one look at his house in Centreville's Country Club Manor community, and it's clear that something excites him very much: Christmas. His corner lot at 5700 Claret Place, on the corner of Greymont Drive, is lit up like, well, a Christmas tree — actually, an entire Christmas village!
THIS IS HIS eighth year of decorating, and visitors come from miles around to see this magical masterpiece that features flashing lights set to music and takes some 25,000 LED lights and 350 extension cords to accomplish. And for something that brings joy to many people, Ritter, a network administrator, takes its creation seriously.
"As soon as Christmas is over, I start planning for the next year," he said. "In March, when other people are thinking about summer, I'm thinking about Christmas. And this year, I'm going to a Christmas trade show in Gatlinburg, Tenn., Aug. 2-4."
He and wife Marcie have three children, Matt, 15, Michael, 14, and Marissa, 7, and the family's lived there since 1999. "I always enjoyed going to people's houses and seeing the Christmas lights when I was a kid," said Ritter. "The first year, I built a manger scene and had a few lights, and it grew rapidly through the years."
All year 'round, he purchases decorating items through the Internet — especially e-Bay and www.planetchristmas.com. The latter site is where he found his new lighting system for this year.
"I outline the roof of the house with lights and put them on the bushes and trees," said Ritter. "And my front, side and corner yards are lined with approximately 110 candles and toy soldiers, about 2 feet high each."
He uses multicolored, white and red lights, and all the different colors are synchronized to "dance" to different beats of music. The lights are on from 4:30 p.m.-midnight, and the musical light show — which is on every single thing in the yard — runs from 6-9:30 p.m. (It's available at www.animatedlighting.com).
"I have an FM-radio transmitter broadcasting on 105.7 FM," explained Ritter. "It only transmits 150-200 feet from the house, but you can tune your radio to that station when the light show is on."
It plays "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells," "Carol of the Bells," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "Linus and Lucy" from "A Charlie Brown Christmas." Visitors hear the complete songs, and the program lasts about 20 minutes, with a five-minute break between each set of five songs."
There are also about 100 other Christmas decorations, including a Nativity scene with a choir of 20 angels; lighted plastic figures of Santa Claus, penguins and 20 snowmen; and Santa and his reindeer and sleigh lit up on top of the roof.
IN ADDITION, there are three animated bears skating on a pond, a moving train, an animated Santa, four lighted-fabric snowmen, two elves riding a seesaw and an elf going down a slide. Oh, and don't miss the 15 Christmas trees made out of rope light or the lighted area featuring gingerbread people, a gingerbread house, candy canes and lollipops.
"I put it up Dec. 2, and it about triples my electric bill to about a thousand bucks a month," said Ritter. "But I enjoy it and the kids love it, and I love seeing all the kids looking at it. There's a steady flow of people coming by."
His wife's favorite thing is the pond, but he especially likes the 10-foot Christmas tree in the front with red, green and blue lights. Said Ritter: "When it's synchronized to music, it's pretty cool."
He's also proud of the North Pole scene with some 30 lighted, plastic figures, including Santa, four elves, eight penguins and two polar bears. And the four deer pulling a golden, rope-light sleigh and Santa Claus, near a "Reindeer Crossing" sign also add a special touch.
But that's not all. Ritter's rhapsody also features nine, lighted singers in a children's choir, plus various lit-up cartoon figures such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Snoopy, Tweety Bird and the Tasmanian Devil. And there are seven, holographic, lighted figures from the movie, "Rudolph and the Land of the Misfit Toys," plus Rudolph and his girlfriend, Clarice.
"IT TAKES 140 hours to put it all up," said Ritter. "My father-in-law helped this year, and my wife and kids. But my daughter says she's my biggest helper."
The whole shebang keeps him busy changing light bulbs and replacing light strings that go out. But he says it still works, even in the rain. The toughest part is "trying to get it done in time," said Ritter. But his satisfaction comes when he turns on the lights each night.
"When I start getting it out, people drive by to ask when I'm turning on the lights, and it's pretty cool to hear that," he said. "It's a lot of work, but it's also fun and I'm still enjoying it."