How to find best Christmas displays in Northern Virginia — for free

Christmas lights display
One of the displays featured on Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights. (WTOP/Zeke Hartner)

One of the displays featured on Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights. (WTOP/Zeke Hartner)

One of the displays featured on Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights. (WTOP/Zeke Hartner)

One of the displays featured on Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights. (WTOP/Zeke Hartner)

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Christmas lights display

The winter holidays have always been about trying to make the most out of harder times.

Though thoughts of a new year may bring some anxiety, intimate gatherings mean shared meals and toasts to the possibilities, instead of fear of the unknown. With shorter days and longer stretches of darkness, bright lights and silly lawn ornaments lovingly wrap homes up in cheer.

It’s fitting that this year, when so many winter holiday traditions stand to be knocked down by the coronavirus pandemic, Holly Zell, creator and operator of Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights, has seen a sudden resurgence of people decorating their yards for Christmas.

“I have noticed a lot more lights this year than I have in past years, and I think a lot of it is COVID-related — people stuck in their houses were just like, ‘Let me get outside and do something,'” said Zell.

“I believe it’s wonderful because I missed seeing a lot of lights. I used to have to drive from display to display with very little in between, and now my head’s on a swivel going back and forth looking at all the beautiful lights everyone has put up.”

Zell’s website helps those who want to see the best Christmas displays Northern Virginia has to offer cut through the noise and get straight to the best of the best.

Zell said she found her love for Christmas displays at a young age, and decided to use that passion when a web design course she was taking in 2007 assigned her to create her own website.

“I always loved driving around looking at Christmas lights, but I found that it was really hit or miss — some nights, you go out and try a street and hit a home run, and other nights, it’s kind of depressing,” said Zell.

“So, I was like, ‘Gee, if only someone would publish something where you could find them.’ … So, I began with the site, asking the public, ‘Please submit houses that you think are worthy or you think I should check out.'”

The popularity of fairfaxchristmaslights.com increased over the years, and soon Zell found herself getting calls from media outlets as the resident light expert.

In order to be included on the list, Zell must first see the place in person and make her judgment.

Zell said she knows almost instantly whether or not a display is worthy of the page.

“It’s something that either blows my socks off, or it’s OK but maybe it’s not big enough … something about it just doesn’t hit me. It’s gotta really hit me to get on the list as one of the red bulb, top-of-the-list-type of displays,” said Zell. “It really is a subjective opinion of my own.”

Once on the page, Zell ranks them on a scale from three to five stars (ones and twos don’t make the list), and then categorizes them depending on the kind of features the display has.

For instance, some of the displays are synced to music; all you need to do is tune your radio to the channel indicated at the property and enjoy the show.

For those who have limited time to drive around looking at Christmas displays, Zell has organized the different houses by area and placed them along routes for convenient viewing.

If you see a house that you think Zell should consider for the website, send her an email — with a picture of the display — to hollyween@hotmail.com.

There is also a Facebook group dedicated to Holly’s Tacky Christmas Lights, but Zell said, this time of year, the page gets too crowded and difficult to manage on top of the website, so she is not accepting new members to the group until the holidays are over.

If you’re looking for a safe — not to mention free — family activity this holiday season, check out Holly’s list, grab some snacks for the road and enjoy the best light shows the area has to offer.

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