I quit my IT job to install lights year-round. It's not easy but making people's days is worth it.
- Doran Dal Pra first installed holiday lights in 2018 after a friend proposed the business idea.
- By 2020, he'd quit his IT job to work full time at the New England Holiday Light Co.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Doran Dal Pra, who co-owns The New England Holiday Light Co. in Hooksett, New Hampshire. It's been edited for length and clarity.
My job as a professional holiday-lights installer started when my best friend, Jeff Paquin, came to me with the business idea.
In October 2018, while I was still working my full-time IT job, Jeff and I completed our first installations for a few friends, plus aunts and uncles who took pity on us.
We did 20 jobs the first year and 80 the next. Then I quit my job in 2020 and devoted all my time to building up the business.
This year, we'll log over 300 holiday-themed jobs between September and December, in addition to our year-round wedding, event, and landscape-lighting projects — relying only on social-media marketing and word of mouth.
I quickly realized that we're touching on something personal for our clients
It's not just lighting because what we're creating is tapping into nostalgia — whether through tradition, culture, or the client's memories.
During the holidays, I get to the warehouse at 7 a.m. to meet with the crew. Everyone has a scheduling app called ServiceM8 on their phone to see their daily job assignments, connect with their crew leader, get their boxes and tools together, and load trucks.
I divide the 12 staffers into crews of about three or four people, and each of the four teams can do $4,000 to $8,000 worth of installations a day, while traveling upward of 100 miles. I try to avoid too many 16-hour days, but it's tough if there's a storm delay. The holiday lights have to go up — snow or no snow.
Every bulb is inspected and prepped by a team at the warehouse, so once we're on the jobsite, it's easy to pull the bins off the truck
From there, we review the design plans and keep top of mind the safety protocols to avoid ladder issues, breaking lights, sunburn, or dehydration. We're working outside with tools and ladders in all sorts of weather, so our risk for injury is similar to that of a landscaper.
Most jobs — residential and commercial — include roofline lights, so the ladder is one of my most important tools, on top of all the wire cutters, pliers, drills, metal cabling, extension cords, timers, and zip ties. The prep team inserts all the bulbs into the sockets in advance so we can focus on clipping the socket wire in place to match the design plan.
It's incredibly satisfying to clip all the lights into place, and while every house is different, we can anchor up to 5,000 lights, just for an average-size house.
For comparison, large commercial projects — such as walk-through or drive-thru light exhibitions — combine specialty lighting like animation, spritzers, twinkling snowflakes, oversize present boxes, wreaths, glowing garland, up lights, and wash lights.
There might be hundreds of thousands of lights between the trees, shrubs, columns, railings, rooflines, and 3D objects. It's still the same clipping of bulbs and wrapping of mini lights, but it's a doozy, so we might stay at a nearby Airbnb.
When you're doing a roofline, it's about placing the ladders in the safest and most efficient spots possible to clip the lights.
We generally use specialty clips to secure the lights to either the shingles or gutter. We minimize the permanent equipment, like tacks or anchors, on a home but sometimes need to use small racks to secure an extension cord to the corner of a house or zip-tie the socket wire in a way to prevent it from moving around.
In general, shrubs are easier and don't take much time
Probably the most difficult part about lighting shrubs is making sure the lights are organized and even. But the exception is when we get into spiral-wrapping mini lights around the trunks and limbs. That can be challenging because the spaces between limbs are irregular, which makes it hard to create symmetry. Those situations are more difficult than doing a roofline.
We're not building rockets; we're hanging holiday lights, which is something almost any homeowner can do. But when the appropriate time has been taken to wrap something correctly, or a roofline has been installed in a way where every bulb is perfect, there's almost no better feeling.
What makes what we do different is taking things that final 10% — wrapping that one last branch, making sure lines are neat and even, fastening extension cords so they're out of the way, making sure the jobsite is clean. The details are what makes or breaks a job.
It's not just hanging up the sparkle and glow
There are $250,000 installations with nearly 200,000 lights and a two-week timeline, like the one at the Shelburne Museum, but the smaller jobs are equally important.
There's this home for older adults that goes bananas with its holiday lights each year. The residents look forward to it and come out to chat while we're working. Then they all gather about 4 p.m. It's timed so all the lights come on at once, and the whole crowd cheers like wild.
Of course, I'm incredibly grateful that some people spend upward of $5,000 to have their houses lit up; that's a lot of money for lighting you're going to keep up for only a few weeks. But there's magic around the holidays.
I'll never forget this one job
A couple hired us to wrap this tree right in front of their property. But it was really late. I was exhausted and just wanted to go home.
Then suddenly, the front door of the house opens, and their daughter, who has Down syndrome, comes racing out of the house. She was so excited to see the magic of the lights. The dad also came out and shared that he had just FaceTimed with his family in Brazil to show them the display.
He also shared the unexpected inspiration for lighting up their big evergreen — their older neighbor.
Their neighbor is a woman in her late 80s. Her bedroom window looked directly at the tree. When I looked over, I could see her petite frame in the window as she looked on.
And it was like, "OK, I'm not going to feel sorry for myself anymore."
In contrast to all that joy, I have a black eye
I was on a ladder and pulling an extension cord through some branches when it got caught. I gave it a good yank, and it came whipping up and hit me in the face.
My instant reaction was, "Oh, my God, I just blinded myself," and it was a struggle to get my wits about me — and not fall off the ladder.
The bruise probably won't fully heal before I celebrate Christmas with my friends and family, but I get to play an important role in people's holidays, so my heart is full of gratitude.
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