DICKERSON – For five decades the members of the Woodmoor Pinecrest neighborhood of Silver Spring borrowed ladders from fire stations and battled broken strands of Christmas lights that had been chewed through by squirrels, all in the name of getting a three-story tall evergreen to light in the annual holiday ceremony.
“Every year we thought, ‘How are we going to get the lights to work?'” said Michele Riley, the president of the community association, which includes about 1,200 houses.
And then five years ago, after the local third-graders, dressed in elf costumes, had escorted Santa to the tree, and with the whole neighborhood looking on, candy canes in hand, the switch was flipped but the tree simply would not light.
A few children cried.
That led the community to decide it was time to outsource its decorations to Christmas Decor, a holiday light decorating business run by Ted Hall when his Clarksburg painting company, Hallco Enterprises, is in the off season.
Christmas Decor is a franchise of a national organization that’s profiting from the desperation of a growing number of time-crunched homeowners and community groups willing to fork out anywhere from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars to end the frustration of wrestling with knotted strings of lights and broken bulbs.
“It’s worked out much better now,” Riley said.
A three-year contract for the community runs $9,000 per year, which was defrayed by increasing dues, Riley said. But members of Woodmoor Pinecrest, like many in Maryland, think that paying Christmas Decor is worth every penny.
“The look is fantastic,” Riley said. “(The lights) are just woven into the branches. It’s really gorgeous.”
Hall got into the holiday decorating business when he was looking for winter work for his painting company when the weather for months on end is too cold to paint. In 2004, he found Christmas Decor, the national franchise that has been in operation since 1986.
“It’s just a natural fit,” Hall said. “We had all the equipment, the ladders.”
The national organization decorates about 60,000 households a year and runs its own distribution company to ensure that its franchise operations are putting up some of the best holiday products on the market. The average cost for a standard job, which includes lighting on the roof, front of the house, walkways and some trees costs about $1,400.
“It’s for someone that has some disposable income,” said Brandon Stephens, the vice president of marketing for the national Christmas Decor. “That could mean they are wealthy, or that Christmas is really important to them.”
Hallco and its branch of Christmas Decor reaches between 50 and 60 houses per season. When they started in the business they were seeing a steady increase in demand, but the economic downturn has slowed growth.
“It’s been tough for the past couple years because of the economy,” Hall said. “We’ve been pretty much maintaining what we currently have.”
The professional holiday decorating industry began in the 1940s and ’50s when handymen would offer their services in the winter, and the business became popular in the 1980s and ’90s, said Bobby Cooper, the president of the American Holiday Decorators Association.
Now there are about 2,500 such businesses around the country, according to Cooper, and all but a few of those are service industry businesses, like painting, gutter cleaning and landscaping, who add a holiday decorating branch when business is slow.
But Hall isn’t worried about the competition. While some companies will come and string your lights for you, Christmas Decor, he said, provides the works.
“Not only do we install the lights, but with us, it’s a whole process: design, installation, service, removal,” Hall said.
“It’s not apples and apples.”
While some holiday decorators go extreme, with inflatable snowmen and light displays that can be seen from space, Stephens insists that what Christmas Decor promotes is professional and tasteful.
“Most of the installs we do are not over the top. They are nice, classy, clean installations.”
And for Hall, the decorating doesn’t need to be extreme to be festive.
“It sparks that childlike characteristic of Santa Claus and family,” Hall said. “It’s just a very warm feeling.”
Even Christmas Decor’s employees get into the holiday spirit while hanging lights.
“When we see the people, you know, happy … that pays,” said Juan Medina, a site foreman, while stringing lights in below-freezing weather at a house in Dickerson. He said that although it’s cold, he has plenty of warm clothing and he’s happy to have a job.
“I would love to do it all year round,” Hall said. “I love this business because the people I meet are just happy. They are happy and excited to talk about Christmas.”