Every neighborhood seems to have a house with Christmas lights covering every available surface. At one house in Northwest D.C., this tradition goes all the way back to the 1960s, when a charismatic religious leader wanted to bring light to a city in need of some Christmas cheer.
George Ford Jr. is a life-long member and apostle of the D.C.-based faith, the United House of Prayer for All People. When he was a kid growing up in Washington, he used to love going to see the bright Christmas displays in department store windows -- stores like Hecht's, downtown.
"Early years in Washington, D.C., the department stores had around Christmas time, beautiful displays," says Ford. "The children would go and just 'ahhh' and swoon over the mannequins in the window. And after the riots, of course, that was no more."
The Hecht's flagship store on 7th Street was one of hundreds of businesses damaged in the violence following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In the years following, the Christmas displays downtown just weren't the same, says Ford.
So, the bishop of Ford's church suggested putting on a display of their own.
"He wanted for those children who have no place to go, to see this kind of lights like they used to do."
The bishop at the time was Walter McCollough, who led the United House of Prayer for All People for more than 30 years. The Christmas lights began as a few strands on the bishop's house, and evolved over the years into a massive display with lights on every part of the house, on every tree and shrub.
Ford has been involved in decorating the bishop's house since the very beginning. He says it takes more than a month to set up the display, with 15 to 20 volunteers working in teams. Last time they tried to count the lights, he says, there was something like half a million of them.
The bishop's house is in the leafy northern tip of the District, near Silver Spring.
The Christmas display is a local institution, drawing thousands of parents and kids each year. Stopping here is a family tradition for many, spanning generations.
On a recent evening, Josimar Taylor came to show his girlfriend. He's been visiting the bishop's house each December for the past 15 years, since he was 10.
"My family brought me out here, straight out," he says. "Because I'm from Panama, so they wanted to show me the house with the lights. At first I was like, 'Huh? The house with the lights?' And as soon as we pulled up, I was like, 'Wow. It's the house with the lights.'"
Tom Roszkowski was there with his two sons. "I'm 41 years old now, so I've been coming here basically my whole life and seeing these lights every year. So now, I share it with my kids."
Robert Woods also grew up coming to see the lights, and later brought his kids, who are now grown.
"It's nostalgic, it takes me back to my childhood," says Woods. "Things have gotten so commercialized with Christmas now. This takes me back to when we sang 'Silent Night' and it meant something, you know, and it wasn't so much about the Santa Claus and the reindeers, but the spirit of Christmas."
Fran Alves has also been stopping to see the lights for generations, starting with her daughter. On this night, she's here with her 2-year old grandson.
"This makes me excited, gets me ready for the holiday season," she says. "From a religious standpoint, you think about heaven and how glorious it is, and this is only a piece of it. It's beautiful."
The bishop's house is located at 1665 N. Portal Drive, just south of Silver Spring.
[Music: "Bounce of the Sugar Plum Fairy" by Don Byron from Bug Music]
Photos: Bishop's House