Slidell family’s light display aims to help charity

Mikhael and Stephen Morris are self-confessed Christmas decoration fanatics.

It’s a seasonal madness that Mikhael traces back to her Slidell childhood, when her father won the lights display contest in Country Club Estates every year, and no Christmas was complete without seeing Al Copeland’s lights and Celebration in the Oaks on the south shore.

But now the family’s display at 125 Chamale Drive in Slidell is earning its own spot in other people’s Christmas traditions, with as many as 400 cars an hour showing up to gaze at 102,000 LED lights that pulse, sparkle and flash to the tune of Christmas music that visitors can hear by tuning their radios to 88.9 FM.

The stream of visitors became so thick this year that the Morris family hired a police detail — at $180 per night — to help keep traffic moving through their subdivision.

The lights are on every night from Thanksgiving until Jan. 6, but the extravagant display takes up far more of the Morris family’s year.

Stephen Morris begins the computer programming work in July. This time-consuming process involves matching light changes to songs that can be heard on car radios through a device called an FM modulator. This past summer, the couple even went to a Christmas lights convention in Gatlinburg, Tenn., to find out what is new in the world of over-the-top illumination.

The physical work of putting up 7.2 miles of cable and all those lights takes about two months, and Stephen Morris does most of it himself, his wife said, although she and her children — Bailey, 14, Kayla, 12, Ella, 3, and Stephen Jr., 2 — try to lend a hand.

The results are eye-popping. This year’s display features nine songs with lighting choreography that ranges from the frenetic to the reflective, as shimmering waves pass over the Morrises’ roof and lighted archways on the lawn in time to the music.

The star of the show is the Cosmic Color Ribbon tree, a structure made with 12 ribbons of LED lights that can turn any color and perform other visual wonders.

“Anything you could have on a TV — pictures, words,’’ Mikhael Morris said. “Next year, we want to do the roof.”

The Morris display also has its quieter moments, however, including a reading of the Christmas story, with each figure in the nativity scene lighting up when featured.

The couple’s decorating tradition has evolved through their 15-year marriage, Mikhael Morris said. The two former high school sweethearts have always enjoyed going all out for the holidays, and Mikhael said the inside of their house is nearly as extreme as the outside.

However, last year — the first time their lights were synchronized to music — is when the attraction got “really big,” she said. Because of that, the family met with police, city officials and the Chamale Cove Homeowners Association ahead of this year’s holiday season to address concerns.

In the past, the lights used to go on right at dark, about 5:30 p.m., but this year the display isn’t illuminated until 6:45 p.m., so neighbors don’t have to battle crowds to get home from work.

The Morrises also have some recorded messages on the audio portion of the display, urging visitors to stay in their cars, to refrain from throwing trash and blocking driveways and to be generally considerate of their neighbors.

After last year’s huge turnout, the family began to think about how they could turn their gift to the community into something more — a way to raise money for a worthy cause. They decided to turn the display into fundraising event for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. They created a Facebook page, the Morris Family Christmas Lights Extravaganza, that contains a link to make a donation. The cause is also mentioned in a voice-over asking viewers to visit the page and make a donation to help children who are struggling with illness during the holidays.

The family also sometimes passes out fliers promoting St. Jude to the line of waiting cars. Monday night, Mikhael and her two older daughters walked down the line of cars handing out candy canes and making sure people knew how to tune to the FM station.

The Morrises hope to raise $3,000 for St. Jude this year, and Mikhael Morris thinks that will happen, although so far visitors seem more inclined to give cash while watching the lights than making an online visit. In one hour recently, visitors donated $50.

The display is a lot of work, Mikhael Morris acknowledged — and costs a lot of money. People frequently ask about their electricity bill, but she said that’s not a big expense since the lights are LEDs and are not on continuously. The larger costs are the equipment and the private police details.

When it comes time to pack it all away, a two-weekend job, there’s a temptation to say, “Let’s not do it next year,” she said.

But that impulse is short-lived. Every year, she said, the lights bring out so many family and friends and familiar faces and so many new faces.

The Morrises see the look of delight on a child’s face or get an appreciative letter in the mail, and that makes them determined to create a Christmas tradition for Slidell like that made famous by Al Copeland.

“So many people say thank you. So many say, ‘This means so much to my children,’ or ‘We weren’t able to afford Christmas this year, thank you for giving us Christmas,’ ” she said.