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While Vinton residents and natives are very familiar with the light display begun by Larry Kersten 50 years ago just a few miles east of the Benton/Tama County line, another display with tens of thousands of lights is bringing thousands of visitors just east of the Benton/Linn County line.

For the past few years, Blue Creek Christmas has been growing in size, technology and audience. Located straight north of Center Point, where the two-lane road bearing that town’s name intersects with Fee Road, thousands of spectators from Iowa and beyond have stopped to see the synchronized, computerized light show.

When Aaron Maue built the corner-lot house where he lives with his wife Debra and children Abby, Faith, Sydney and Gabe, he had Christmas on his mind. He made sure the electrician wired outlets into the soffits so he could easily install lights on the roof.

Yet, says Maue, he never imagined creating a display that would grow so huge, or popular.

Blue Creek Christmas now runs the entire length of Blue Creek Court, a long block with a cul-de-sac and seven homes.

“It’s seven acres of lights,” he said.

The “Neighborhood Song,” as Aaron and Debra both call it, features a classical musical Christmas song accompanied by lights in the windows and yards all along the street. Spectators can tune to 97.1 on their FM radios and hear the music which Maue and his family have synchronized with the lights. Trees made from upside-down tomato stakes fill the Maue’s yard, and dot the other yards of the neighborhood.

The main part of the show is two large trees, made of the newest technology. Maue has built two 14-foot tall trees on which are mounted pixel lights. Each light has its own computer board and can glow in virtually any color.

“The 360° tree in the one has almost 2,700 lights on it,” says Maue. “The 180° one right next to the house has almost 1,800 lights on it. I can make each light be any color of the rainbow and I can control each light independently of all the other lights.”

With clip-art and text programs, Maue can also add images or words to those two trees. For the past two years, the show has included a tribute to soldiers and veterans. This song, which draws the largest response from the audience, includes graphics of a flag, a soldier saluting and other images that accompany an imaginary reflection by Santa Claus after he visited the home of a soldier. For other displays, the large tree in the yard also displays images of the soldiers from the “Nutcracker” and a “Drummer Boy.”

The lights tell the story of Christmas as the Maue family experiences it. There are fun songs for children (“Marshmallow World” by the Cheetah Girls – although Bing Crosby first made that song popular in 1950); Christmas humor (The Beach Boys parody “Good Decorations” by Bob Rivers); traditional songs and songs about the meaning of Christmas by contemporary Christian groups Go Fish and Point of Grace.

“We try to have something for everyone,” says Maue, adding that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, so many of the songs he chooses have that message.

For Maue, the love of Christmas goes back to his childhood. When he was nine, his father bought large collection of lights from a neighbor. Since then, Maue has loved celebrating Christmas in a big way.

Several years ago, he noticed a new, unique display near his in-laws’ home in Breese, Ill. On a street called Pioneer Court, someone had set up a computerized Christmas display.

The display on Pioneer Court only lasted a few years. But in 2010, when the Pioneer Court Christmas went dark, Blue Creek Christmas began.

Using lights and controls from the Light-O-Rama Corporation and a software appropriately-named “Nutcracker,” Maue combines computerized lights and music into a holiday display.

With a degree in electrical engineering, Maue said the project brings out the “geek” in him. He spends 10 to 15 hours programming each song, making sure the music and lights are in synch. At his full-time job, he is now a director of a Rockwell-Collins services and support services team. "We work with our customers to ensure their products stay in good repair and product capabilities are updated, as necessary," Maue explains.

There is also a creative non-computerized aspect to the show: Maue said he used an “old-fashioned projector” to enlarge out the shapes of the words “Believe” and “Peace” before placing them in his yard, or attach them to the bricks of the house.

The entire family is involved in the show. Abby, the oldest Maue child, who turned 13 the weekend the show ended, built a multi-light Christmas tree out of wood and metal in the back yard. Faith, the second-oldest, did most of the work on the Christmas countdown display, which was her idea. Abby and Faith each also programmed one of the songs for the 2014 display. The younger children also join the rest as the entire family works together to set up the trees and string the three miles of electrical cord and one mile of Ethernet cable between the home and the lights. Even young Sydney and Gabe help.

Growing pains

While the yards along Blue Creek Court are large enough to add more trees and lights, Maue discovered one severe limitation this season – traffic options. On a few weekend nights, spectators sat waiting for an hour or longer in cars that were backed up more than a half-mile on that two-lane road. Maue addressed this issue by shortening the show on the busiest nights, and by making signs to place along the road advising of expected wait times.

While pondering some traffic options for next year, Maue said it seems the best option for reducing the heavy traffic has been reducing the show from 30 minutes to 10. After Christmas, the full show resumed.

Unknown to Maue, a Cedar Rapids radio station created a public service announcement about Blue Creek Christmas. Maue asked them to pull that PSA because of traffic concerns; he also turned down a television interview request for the same reason (and asked Vinton Today to wait until after Christmas to do this story).

The other challenge facing the family is finding places to store all of these displays. Each of the 36 small trees is covered with green, white and blue lights. Most of the lights have been upgraded to longer-lasting commercial grade, instead of the department store version that most people use.

“We have a total of 69,000 lights,” says Maue, adding that he has used his garage and shop area for storage, but is running out of space.

Planning for 2015 to begin soon

"We design, build and program all year long," says Maue.

While beginning to dismantle the 2014 display, which ended Jan. 4, Maue and his family are already beginning to look for songs for 2015. They will spend their spare time throughout the rest of the year – especially after October – programming the lights and music.

"We begin in earnest in October with the the setup and testing of the display, as that process takes 6-7 weeks," says Maue.

By end of this January, the family should pretty much know what the 2015 show will include, said Maue. Abby says she already knows what she wants to make for her 2015 project, but says it will remain a surprise for now.

The Maue children attend Center Point-Urbana schools, where they are already well-known for their family’s display.

The 2015 light display will go on for the first time on the Sunday after Thanksgiving – but first, says Debra, the Maues will hold a private showing for their neighbors, who cooperate with the family in setting up the display, and willingly tolerate the evening traffic throughout the holiday season.

Lights sparkled in six of the seven yards along Blue Creek Court in 2014; one house remained dark because it was in the process of changing owners, says Maue, who believes that all seven houses will be part of the 2015 show.

The Maues often dress up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus and the elves, welcoming visitors along the road. They passed out 6,000 candy canes this holiday season. And when they are not at home in December, they are enjoying the work of other Christmas decorators. Maue has seen Kersten’s display near Vinton, and admires it.

“I love every Christmas display, not matter how large or small; and I know how much work goes into them,” he say. "And I love telling our story and talking about the technology behind it."

Generosity and thanks

The family has received many comments and words of thanks from the spectators. One particularly inspiring thank-you came from a mother of an autistic young man who delivers his letter to Santa in person to the Maues, who coordinate with that mom to make sure Santa is there to receive the letter.

Thankful spectators tried to give Maue donations for the show, but he declined. Finally he decided to accept donations, but pass them all on to charities. In 2012, the donations went to Noah's Rainbow, a Center Point-based charity which helps families facing cancer or other serious childhood diseases. Last year, the money went to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (now called JDRF). Spectators placed more than $9,000 in the stocking-shaped donation box last year. This year, the proceeds will all go toward the Center Point library addition/renovation project. The Maues presented the library board $14,800 at this week's meeting.

See the Blue Creek Christmas Facebook page HERE.

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