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Holiday lights remain bright

The home of Jim and Sharon Smith on Sherwood Forest Drive in Charlotte, NC.
The home of Jim and Sharon Smith on Sherwood Forest Drive in Charlotte, NC.

We recycle our trash and trade our light bulbs for more energy-efficient ones. We're getting better about turning out the lights when we leave home, too, because we know fifty percent of electricity comes from coal-fired plants that pump globe-warming pollution into the atmosphere. Then comes December, when we festoon our homes and yards with lights and leave them blazing right into the New Year. "Now that you say it like that, I kind of feel bad," says Jennifer Acacia. Sorry, Jennifer. She's one of those elaborate Christmas decorators. Her house is famous in the Highland Creek neighborhood. Even her kids' playhouse is lit. And until I rained on her parade, the environmental impact of her holiday tradition was far from her mind: "I have everything lit," says Acacia. "I mean, like I said, I have all the trees. We have deer and a lot of snowmen outside. It gets bigger every year, my husband gets aggravated, he's like, 'You're driving me crazy with all these lights!'" Just off Colony Road in South Charlotte, the Smith home is so spectacular that Santa hangs out here every night, taking wish lists and treating kids to candy canes. The cars inch along, single-file like ants from dusk til the house goes dark at 11. The passengers have lots of questions for Santa - and not all are about their status on his "naughty or nice" list. "We were wondering, how long does it take to build up all this? And how much is her light bill?" asks Rosie Chokshi. With a "Ho! Ho! Ho!" Santa moves on to the next car and leaves Sharon Smith to answer the questions. "It takes a little over a week," says Smith. "And every day when you come, it may have something else." And about that power bill? "We have level-pay plan, so we don't know. We don't really want to know!" admits Smith, laughing. Can't really blame her. The flashing trees and twinkling reindeer, Santa's sleigh and snowmen emit such a glow they've inspired a few fender benders. But, "Christmas lights really are not a large energy consumer for most people," says Andy Thompson. He should know, since he's with Duke Energy. And while Santa and the Smith's are not "most people" when it comes to Christmas lights, even they might be surprised to learn their true cost: One strand of lights has about 50 mini-bulbs. Figure you use five strands on your tree. . . "So if you calculate that out, if your Christmas tree's on five hours a day, for 31 days, basically the month of December, you'll end up using about a dollar and 11 cents worth of energy," says Thompson. So for example, Jennifer Acacia - the homeowner I guilt-tripped with my talk about global warming - has no idea how many lights are on her house. She does know her energy bill spikes about 50-bucks in December. That might just be her heater. But do the math and she's burning at least 225 strands. Any chance she's closing in on too many? "I would say never could you have too much, but you know what? I don't want it to get to the point where it just doesn't look tastefully done, you know?" says Acacia. There's no such thing as "too much" for ten-year old Parker Garrison. "It's just my favorite house that I get to see. It's like, the one I love the most!" he gushes. His parents bring him to see Santa at the Smiths' every year. Whether all those amazing lights will make the globe a few degrees warmer by the time he's having kids of his own . . . well, of course, that's the furthest thing from his mind. And from an environmental perspective, it's probably not the lights we should be worried about. It's all of those cars lined up to get a good look at this Winter Wonderland ****** Here are some tips for "Going Green" at the holidays: - Wrap gifts in old maps, the comics section of a newspaper, or children's artwork. -Decorate your tree with pine cones, ribbons, popcorn or even gingerbread cookies to avoid producing unnecessary plastic. - Get a pesticide-free tree. Call (800) CLEANUP or visit www.earth911.com to find the tree-recycling program near you. -Turn down your thermostat a few degrees and bundle up or light a fire in your fireplace. -Have your furnace inspected to make sure it's running efficiently and keep air filters clean. -Make sure your fireplace flue is closed tightly when not in use. -Avoid opening the oven door to check on baking treats. 25% of the oven's heat escapes! -Use your microwave instead of your oven whenever possible. -If Santa brings you a new cell phone, recycle your old one at the nearest Staples. -Use locally-grown food in your holiday feasts. -Turn off your car to admire the holiday lights, rather than let the engine idle.