After 51 years of being on the Tacky Lights tour and raising over $175,000 for the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls with his display, Frank Hudak, also known as Mr. Christmas, will be hanging up his illuminated suit after this holiday season.
“I always said, ‘When God doesn’t want me to do it anymore, he’ll tell me.’ I’m slowing down. It’s getting hard to get up and down the ladders,” Hudak, 80, said. “It’s time.”
Hudak’s home at 2300 Wistar Court was one of the very first houses on the Tacky Lights tour. Originally from Philadelphia, Hudak started lighting up his Richmond home in homage to the Christmas lights that are common in his hometown.
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“I was a newspaper boy for the Philadelphia Bulletin. I was on the street all the time, delivering papers, and you’d be hard pressed not to find a house with some Christmas lights on it. I was enamored with the whole thing. It makes you feel merry and jolly and I thought, I’d like to do that someday,” Hudak said.
After he moved to Richmond, he decorated his house for the holidays in 1973 and was the winner of the first ever “Tacky Christmas Lights” contest. He won $100 and a trophy that year and donated the $100 to the Salvation Army Children’s Shoe Fund.
Since then, his display has grown to over 100,000 lights that takes 4 miles of wiring via miniature variable computer circuits. His secret? Hitting the after-holiday sales to stock up on more lights and displays.
“It was the more the merrier. My mind exploded, I started to dream about all the different things I could do,” Hudak said. “It grew and expanded and before you knew it, I had over 100,000 lights.”
Hudak designed and built his own FM radio station to broadcast holiday music to go with his display. He starts putting out the lights in September and doesn’t finish until Thanksgiving when he flips the switch. It takes six days just to plug everything in, he said. “There are no books on how to do decorative lights. I learn a lot by trial and error,” he said.
“Being a gregarious person, I like to meet and greet people. But I didn’t want a Santa suit. I developed the persona of Mr. Christmas. He seemed to make everybody happy,” Hudak said.
As Mr. Christmas, he considers himself “Santa’s elf,” bringing joy and merriment to the community, as well as raising funds for the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls.
Over the years several celebrities have stopped by the house including Jimmy Buffett, Jimmy Dean and the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile. Mr. Christmas has become something of a celebrity himself and has been featured by The New York Times Magazine, NPR and TLC’s “Crazy Christmas Lights.” Mr. Christmas and the Christmas House have been inducted into the Virginia Historical Society.
But this year, Hudak said he’s struggled to complete the display.
“I didn’t come with a lifetime warranty. Things will wear out,” Hudak said. But still, he kept going because “I wanted to say I did it for over 50 years.”
A legend in lights
“Frank has always been the consummate gentleman when it comes to the Tacky Light tours,” Mark Pounders, director of operations for Winn Transportation, the bus line that hosts Tacky Lights tours every year. “There have been many others who put together the Tacky Lights for recognition. He’s never done that. It’s always about the kids with him, from wanting to see and meet every single child who comes to see his lights, to donating to the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls.”
The Virginia Home for Boys and Girls provides transitional housing for Virginia’s young people who have experienced trauma, as well as a specialized education school and a therapeutic resource center.
“We appreciate him so much. He is one of our most loyal donors,” Claiborne Warner, the president of the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls, said. “He doesn’t take a penny for himself. All of the funds he raises go directly to our annual fund…[which] supports nearly 50% of our budget.”
“Not only does he raise money, but he also raises awareness of our organization by speaking to community groups, garnering business sponsors, and appearing on TV and radio shows,” Warner added.
With this year’s display, Hudak is hoping to reach $200,000 in donations for the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Hudak said.
But this won’t be the end of Tacky Lights on Wistar Court or money being raised for the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls.
Mr. Christmas is passing the torch to his neighbor, Richard Bernard at 2302 Wistar Court, who has been decorating his house for the past 10 years. Bernard and his wife will take over collecting for the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls with their display.
Over the years, Bernard’s display has grown to over 180,000 lights. He starts putting them up in September and “spends every waking moment” getting the display ready for the holiday season.
“I love the creativity of putting the pieces out and displaying them,” Bernard said. “The crowds have a blast too. All the smiling faces, thanking us for what we’re doing for the community. It’s great.”
“Frank will be missed in the community. He’s had five generations of people come visit his house. We’ve had people from all over the world — Japan, England, China, Ukraine, India — come out to see us. It’s amazing how far his reach gets. He will be sorely missed.”
Several other big displays on the Tacky Lights tour have dropped off in recent years, with owners aging out or people moving away.
- 6444 Little Sorrel Dr. in Mechanicsville, known as Christmas Fantasyland, won’t be lighting up this year after Chuck Hudgins, the creator of the display, lost his battle with cancer in 2021.9604 Asbury Court will decorate only have one house decorated for the holidays. The owners sold their mother’s house at 9606 Asbury Court, earlier this year.
- 2503 Pine Grove also won’t be lighting up this year due to health issues.
“With Frank hanging it up and a few others [having left the tour already], I’m wondering what the future holds for the Tacky Light tour. It’s like Elvis has left the building. How do you follow that? How do you replace it?” Pounders asked.
Hudak lit his “grand finale” display on Thanksgiving night and the lights will continue through New Year’s Eve.