Tacky Lights Tour Sleighs the Competition in Richmond

A home in the Capitol is decked out for Christmas.

By Dogwood Staff
December 23, 2020

City’s Christmas tradition remains the same, despite the pandemic

RICHMOND – In Richmond this Christmas season, one do-it-yourself tradition has remained essentially unchanged.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place across the Commonwealth and cases on the rise, many have had to rethink their holiday plans. Public events like winter markets and ice skating rinks have had to adjust to social distancing by limited capacity, or simply cancelled altogether.

But the Tacky Lights Tour is different. The tour, which features the gaudiest Christmas lights and blow-up Santas money can buy, is a yearly tradition in the city. And coronavirus hasn’t been any obstacle at all.

That’s because the lights aren’t in a central location where crowds might gather. Instead, anyone interested in seeing the lights has to make their own way to each display scattered throughout the city, from the upscale West End to the bohemian Oregon Hill.

On Laurel Street, one townhouse’s porch is almost completely obscured by glowing Christmas figures and lights draped from a second-story window. The spectacle is impressive, but not unusual for Richmond residences. 

Local houses are decked out in everything from hundreds of coordinated, flashing LEDs to elaborately decorated trees. Not only Santas, but every Christmas-themed character and cartoon you can think of stands on the lawns and porches of Richmonders across the city. Some of these homes glow tranquility in the darkness, casting a soft yellow glow onto the street. Others light up the night with a rainbow of chaotic flashing, color-changing bulbs. 

And on the way from one tacky masterpiece to another, voyagers can expect to see tons of beautiful unlisted displays. Though they may not be on the tour, traveling through the streets of Richmond it’s clear they take the holiday seriously. 

Treat Yo’elf

The tour might sound tacky, and that’s the point, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it in style. Every year, limousine companies in Richmond chauffeur people on the tour through the cold. 

Several companies offer guided tours of the best and brightest displays in the city. Hope Newcomb is the owner and CEO of James Limousine, and she says the tour is one of their more popular offerings.

“IWe book up pretty fast and a lot of the other companies in the area do as well,” said Newcomb. “We’re using our smaller vehicles more. In the past we’ve used our larger buses and mini-coaches.”

According to Newcomb, this transition towards more limited capacity vehicles is a result of COVID-19 restrictions. And that’s meant a shift towards smaller groups.

“We’re doing most of the tours in executive vans or limos or limo-vans.”

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A Richmond Christmas Original

Although the phenomenon of tacky light tours has spread across the country, Richmond has an early claim to fame. Local resident Barry “Mad Dog” Gottlieb kicked off the craze in 1986 with his inaugural lights display. 

Over two decades later, in 2010, Mayor Dwight C. Jones enshrined the tradition with an official city proclamation that declared Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 Richmond Tacky Light Tour Day. The proclamation referred to news articles at the time which called Richmond a “Christmas beacon” and “the capital of the lighting universe” for its lighting decoration. 

Now, national attention on tacky light displays has spawned television shows, media coverage, and an mad race among Christmas mega-fans to outdo each other’s displays. 

But Newcomb says Richmond’s light shows still draw the most crowds.

“Many of the homes that are on the tour have also been featured in the show Great American Light Fight on ABC. And a couple of the homes have actually won,” Newcomb said. 

You can set your own itinerary with the Tacky Light Tour community map. The Tacky Light Tour site also allows residents to list their own displays.

Jakob Cordes is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach him at [email protected].

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