Meet the Professionals Who Sparkle Up the Holidays

An industry of holiday decorators for indoors and out has put down aromatic pine roots on the East End
Jim Frankenbach

Too busy, too cold, too klutzy, or aesthetically challenged to get into a Christmas decorating groove? More like Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold than Martha Stewart?

You’re in luck, as an industry of holiday decorators for indoors and out has put down aromatic pine roots on the East End.

Jim Frankenbach, whose parents were the proprietors of a garden center in Southampton, and who has a landscaping business, was shopping for a new truck in 2001 when he heard employees at the dealership bickering about who was going to put the Christmas tree up. A lightbulb — a Christmas tree bulb — lit up over his head.

He began offering his services as a Christmastime decorator in 2002, and, he said, "the phone started ringing,” He organized his company, Southampton Christmas Lights, in 2007.

Like others who dress up houses and yards for the winter holidays, his toolbox is traditional, with evergreen garlands, wreaths, trees, lights — and more lights —and indoor decorations, including Christmas bulbs, stockings, and decorations for the mantel.

Now, Mr. Frankenbach said, a number of “summer-based companies” have picked up the Christmas specialty. “It’s ‘opportunity meets nothing else to do.’ ”

Beginning full time at the start of November, and sometimes earlier, Southampton Christmas Lights completes close to 100 holiday jobs. The company has done the white lights in the center of Southampton Village,  the Main Streets in several hamlets, and even a tastefully decorated tree at a funeral home. 

When the season is over, Mr. Frankenbach goes to work in reverse, packing away each customer’s holiday lights and baubles in their own containers and cubbies and storing them safely until the next holiday season. 

Commercial jobs, and even some at private homes, can cost from $3,000 to $12,000. You could speculate about how much the extensive, extravagant lights near the William Rudin residence in Bridgehampton, which has motorists diverging from their routes for a look, might have cost.

Wrapping branches on individual bare-leafed deciduous trees can cost $500 to $800 each, Mr. Frankenbach said. 

A $4,600 job at a private residence this year included lights on a large outdoor tree, outlining the house's windows in lights,  putting up the indoor Christmas tree,  and decorating a living room with stockings hung by the chimney with care and many other trappings.

“I want Christmas to be there when I arrive on the 23rd,” one customer told Mr. Frankenbach. “Some people say, ‘give me ideas,’ and others want something they’ve seen,” he said. 

Indoors — if up to his druthers — customers’ houses would be filled with old-fashioned ornaments, “a lot of glass things that remind me of when I was a kid. The holidays are all about tradition.” Nonetheless he has moved almost exclusively to LED lights, which use less energy than traditional bulbs.

“It’s good for the planet. It’s more expensive to purchase, but they last longer.” Because LED lights pull less juice, Mr. Frankenbach can go all out, hanging many more lights than he might otherwise, without the need for multiple sources of electricity. “You can light up a whole house on one outlet,” he said. 

Even big, old-fashioned colored bulbs, which he said are regaining popularity, are available now in LED versions that mimic vintage bulbs while not becoming hot as old lights do. 

“The mini-lights have kind of dominated the business for a long time,” Mr. Frankenbach said. “And you can have them up in July.” Besides Christmas lighting, Mr. Frankenbach has installed the lighting for events at other times of the year, particularly in tents for benefits and weddings.

He is not a fan of using so-called icicle outdoor lights, with their multiple vertical strands hanging from one horizontal line; the wind tangles them, making not only a visual jumble in the night when they are lit, but a hassle for those taking them own to put away. And “no blow-ups” either, he said, coming out firmly against cartoonish air-filled characters that often lie depressingly wrinkled and prostrate on snowy lawns when not inflated.

“My favorite thing to do,” he said, is “really big deciduous trees” with their branches wrapped with strings of lights. “That always looks good,” he said, and the more the better. “This isn’t like expensive jewelry. More is always more with lights.” 

Speaking almost two weeks into December, Mr. Frankenbach admitted that his own house was more less than more, invoking the shoemaker’s children who go without shoes. Though many of his customers’ houses are gussied up, “right now I’m barefoot,” Mr. Frankenbach said. 

Lisa McWilliams, a cousin of Mr. Frankenbach who also grew up in the nursery and landscape business, is a floral designer who has put up “thousands of Christmas lights in the last few weeks.” An all-red Christmas tree for one client, she said, called for about 2,000 red lights — and the same number of red ornaments. 

Primarily an interior Christmas decorator, Ms. McWilliams uses flowers as well as evergreens and household items like towels to create a holiday mood. “I recycle everything,” she said. 

Out in the woods, Elizabeth Yastrzemski, who has been in the Christmas decorating business for more than 25 years, collects the berries, holly, pinecones, and natural greens she uses to hand-hew her holiday wares. As a teenager in a Water Mill farming family, Ms. Yastrzemski wanted a wreath to hang up at Christmastime. With no room in the family budget to buy one, she made it herself,  “just using materials at hand.”

 And she’s still at it. She often uses natural materials gathered from her clients’ own properties for table arrangements, garlands, and wreaths. She also makes her own line of Christmas items, including tabletop trees and “kissing balls,” which are sold at Fowler’s Garden Center in Southampton, formerly Lynch’s. 

“It’s of the area; it’s of the season,” she said of her artistic elements. Among her more than a dozen clients are several Southampton businesses: Herrick’s Hardware, Silver’s restaurant, and St. Ambroeus, where she recently spent three days filling the dining room, window boxes, and nooks and crannies with lush greenery, poinsettias, and all things that speak Christmas. 

“Local greens, local girl, local businesses,” Ms. Yastrzemski said.

Lights at the William Rudin residence on Ocean Road in Bridgehampton have attracted notice and gawking from passing drivers and pedestrians. Durell Godfrey
Some of the familiar sights of the holiday season, courtesy of the professionals who light up the South Fork. Jim Frankenbach and Durell Godfrey Photos