Since he was fourteen years old, Zach Sussin has been fascinated by holiday decorations. After gaining regional notoriety over the past five years, his family’s 215,000-bulb display on Patch Road in Saugerties was seen by millions on December 11 on ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” a seasonal televised yuletide decorating competition. While the Sussins didn’t win the competition, they are elated that their pet project of small beginnings became a nationally recognized work of art.
“One year I went to Walmart to get a Halloween costume and I came out with a box of lights,” said Sussin. “That’s how it all started.”
Zach directs their building projects and manages the technical elements of the affair, while his father, local landscaper Troy Sussin, brings Zach’s decorative concepts to life. Troy has further honed his skills through the various projects, like the remodeling of the hundred-year-old vintage sleigh in their front yard or the creation of the motion-activated “Believe-o-Meter” installed this year, Zach has learned to use pixel light management programs like “Light-o-Rama” to exchange ideas with other light fanatics online.
“Before we started doing the display, me and my dad didn’t get along. But when [we] started putting up the lights, it just brought us so much closer together, and now this is like me and his thing that we do every year,” said Zach in an on-camera interview.
Troy has his own perspective. “My son here is a big dreamer, but I’m the reality-maker,” he said. I’m a DIY guy who gets it done and makes it come to reality .… Zach sits out in the yard and says, Dad, do this, Dad, do that, Dad, do this. And I always say Yes, sir.”
Accepted as competitors
ABC reached out to the family to encourage them to audition for the show in May. After filling out an application, the family set up a sleigh and reindeer in their kitchen for a Skype interview with the producers. They were accepted as contestants in the first week of August, leaving them only 41 days to prepare. Their segments of the show were filmed over a four-day span, during which the film crew became “like family.”
The family competed against the Albrechts of Glenwood, Utah; the Robinson family of Red Cross, North Carolina; and the ultimately victorious Wright family of Dayton, Texas. The Wrights managed to erect their display (which included 15-foot wooden reindeer and a giant sleigh) for the competition this year despite damages caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Television carpentry personality Carter Oosterhouse, who serves as the show’s face and judge, praised the Sussin family’s imaginative repurposing of antique sleds into a Christmas tree, their upturned plastic fishpond transformed into an iceberg, and the transformation of a fabric-covered scaffolding mounted to their house into a makeshift mountain.
“Zack and his Dad prove that Christmas isn’t always about lights and decorations,” said Oosterhouse after the Sussins’ episode segment. “It’s about family, it’s about love, it’s about making memories.”
Only intermittent issues
Troy estimates the electric bill at about $400 extra a month. Managing the property during the Christmas season is a feat in itself. The family claims to get between 5000 and 6000 visitors on an average weekend night.
Zach changes his availability for his day job, working nightly to take photos of children on the property and to hand out candy canes. Troy, whose landscaping business comes second during the holiday season, directs traffic and cleans up after spectators on the property.
“It’s awesome. We love it, and I get to bring my little daughter and nephew over there,” said neighbor April Sloan. “It’s cool, it gets you into the holiday spirit. They have flag people help us get in and out of [our] own driveway.”
According to local police, the attraction causes only intermittent parking issues. Traffic control and signage on the street keeps the high concentration of visitors to a small area in control.
“We just want people to be respectful of our property and to pick up their garbage,” said Troy. “When you have to walk along the road to pick up the garbage that people leave, it’s pretty sad. That’s been one of our big problems.”
While the family did not win the $50,000 prize, the increased traffic to their home has enabled them to raise money for local charities. This year, they donated over 500 toys to the local Salvation Army. They bought Christmas presents for two families through the Christmas Wishes program.
Dozens of people have reached out, congratulating them for their impressive performance, and urging them to continue their festive tradition.
The experience of a lifetime
Regardless of where life takes him, Zach has no inclination to hang up his Christmas lights any time soon. He is considering buying his parents’ property and continuing the tradition on the same site. Or he might relocate to another home in Saugerties. This year, Zach had a strand of DNA adorned in Christmas lights tattooed onto his bicep at SkinFlower Cosmic Arts in Phoenicia.
“Hopefully, if I have kids they can carry it on from there,” he said. “I have it tattooed on me, it would be kind of stupid to stop.”
The local police department has reportedly been supportive of the whole venture. The Sussins would like to thank Jacki Whipple and her husband Vinny. Steve Ross, Jake Vickery, Teri Thomas, Maria Mojica and George Woodworth for their assistance in decoration and during the filming.
“Entering the show wasn’t about winning or losing. I got to show my display to the whole world,” said Zach. “I would do it again in a heartbeat as I thought it was a great experience. It was stressful because we had little time, but it was still the experience of a lifetime and we got what we wanted out of it. It makes me so proud, seeing all the smiles and joy…. It’s amazing seeing what Christmas lights can do to people.”