On Dec. 6, Christmas lights festooning the Eaton family’s waterfront house and attached lighthouse officially will go on and usher in the holiday season for local residents in Little Deer Isle.
The date has special meaning for Travis Eaton. The building contractor and his wife, Angel, and kids Rylee, Gavin and Josie spend weeks arranging thousands of colorful lights on their Haskell District Road home and tower overlooking Penobscot Bay.
“That’s the day that Travis’s Dad passed, and he was a lover of Christmas,” Angel explained. “He dressed up as Santa every year, gave out presents to all the children. So we wait for that day to turn the lights on.”
“It made holidays tough when he passed, because he was always the center of it,” Travis added. “But we started doing this and it kind of got me back in the spirit.”
Taken down just after Christmas, the Eatons’ light display also includes “singing Christmas trees” whose facial features sing carols and greet neighbors and local residents arriving to take in the spectacle.
Travis completely refurbished the previously unoccupied house that stands on land his family has owned for generations. He added the light tower.
“Just a vision, I guess,” Travis said. “My father had built a house with a lighthouse attached when I was a kid, so that might have been some inspiration.”
Before staging their elaborate Christmas light display, the Eatons had been a fixture in the annual Bangor Parade of Lights. Their family’s creative floats also are much anticipated at Deer Isle’s July Fourth Parade.
In 2014, though, Travis and Angel’s son Gavin had to undergo two major surgeries shortly before Christmas and the family was unable to assemble a float to enter the Bangor parade.
Instead, the parents and their other children festooned their home with Christmas lights to cheer up Gavin during his six-week recuperation. The tradition stuck and they’ve continued to expand and enliven it further each year.
“I bet there are over 10,000 lights,” Angel said. “Every year we say we need to count.”
This year will be the fifth that the Eatons are putting on the holiday light show. The singing trees are especially popular.
“Each [singing] tree is made up of about 1,000 lights,” Travis said. “There’s a controller that controls what string of lights should light up when to form different shapes for the eyes and mouth and what song to play.”
The show lasts about 10 minutes. The trees are connected to an FM transmitter and a microphone, so visitors can actually listen to the trees singing on their car radio as they pull up. That also means the Eatons can personally welcome them.
“We’ll have parents or grandparents text us ahead of time with the names of their kids,” Angel said.
Travis Eaton starts erecting the lights after Thanksgiving. The process takes a couple of weeks; an hour or two each day after work or on the weekends with the kids holding flashlights to help him see. The family mostly uses generic Walmart brand lights and is certainly a good customer each year.
“With the way the wind blows over here, the lights are banging around a lot, so there’s a lot of replacing,” Travis related. “I generally go around the house every few days to see how many are broken or shorted out.”
The strands of lights are all stapled to the house or secured with black electrical tape. Each strand is about 22 feet long. The first year, Travis had to measure everything to fit them to the dimensions of the house.
“I like nice crisp, clean lines,” said he said. “Tasteful. It’s not how many lights you can have; it’s how nice your lights can be.”
Since it began, the Eatons’ light display is slightly different every year. One or two new features are usually added such as a light projection of Santa Claus in the window. For a couple of years now, the lighthouse’s lights have gone on with a song.
Like a deejay, Travis runs controller with 16 outlets that connects to his computer, which has a program to operate the light show.
“It can get a little crazy with the extension cords, but luckily being a building contractor I’ve got plenty of those,” Travis said.
More and more people come to see the lights each year. Sometimes Gavin, Rylee and Josie will hand out candy canes. The family also places a donation box at the foot of the hill in front of their house where people gather to see the lights.
“We were wondering how we could give back to our community,” Angel said. “The first year we did non-perishables for the Island Food Pantry. We ended up with a whole trunkload of food and about $200 in cash donations. Last year we collected for the fire departments on the island. It’s a great way to give back.”
The Eatons haven’t decided what they’ll do differently this year, but their home and lighthouse will be illuminated from 5 to 9 p.m. daily starting Dec. 6.