20 Aug 2014
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UPDATE: Royal Oak Family Dims the Lights on Holiday Display

Holiday lights are pared back to lower family's electric bill.

UPDATE: Royal Oak Family Dims the Lights on Holiday Display UPDATE: Royal Oak Family Dims the Lights on Holiday Display UPDATE: Royal Oak Family Dims the Lights on Holiday Display UPDATE: Royal Oak Family Dims the Lights on Holiday Display

After lighting up the corner of Washington Avenue and 12 Mile Road for 34 years, John and Ethlyn can't bring themselves to stop stringing holiday lights, even if it means it will cost more - a lot more. 

On Wednesday night, visitors listened to the Ungers' mechanical yard Santa sing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" as they read a sign with this message:

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

I want to thank you for coming to see our display. It is the joy of the season for us. We found it necessary to downsize this year due to a Smart Meter installed by DTE last year in October. It doubled our electric bill for November and January, but more than tripled the bill for December. We did not want to disappoint any of our friends by not putting up a display, so we just improvised. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Smart meters measure and record electricity usage with digital technology instead of the traditional gears and dials. The technology involves the use of radio frequency waves to transmit data to DTE.

"We have quite a few less lights," said Ethlyn. "We had to downsize. We used to have blowups that we left on all day, but not this year. We are trying to be more efficient."

Ethlyn said despite the higher cost of keeping her yard aglow, she "can't bring herself to stop."

DTE responds

DTE Spokesman John Austerberry may have an explanation for the increase in the family's electric bill. 

"Looking back over the past two years, there is no discernible difference in usage since the AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) was installed," Austerberry said. He noted, however, the family did receive a lot of estimated bills that were lower than the actual usage. That means subsequent bills needed to be higher to make up the difference once an actual reading was performed.

DTE has installed over 900,000 AMI meters, according to Austerberry, making it unnecessary for customers to get estimated bills anymore. The Ungers should expect an accurate and timely reading each month now, he said.


In 1978, the Ungers moved to 1713 N. Washington Ave. Their first Christmas, they set up a nativity scene and two plastic choir lawn ornaments. The rest, as they say, is history.

The display grew every year, plateauing in recent years. It takes over a month to pull out everything stored in their garage and a tent.

The choir has grown from two to 39 - one for each of the Ungers' eight children, 24 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

"When we take it all down, we put the light strands that don't work aside, and John spends the whole summer checking and replacing bulbs," Ethlyn said. 

'Tis the season to be merry

The Unger's turned on the lights at 5:30 p.m. and within minutes more than two dozen people, many of them children, were gazing at the lightacular.

"Three or four times a year someone will leave a letter for us," Ethlyn said. "It will say something like, 'I can't tell you how how important your lights are to me. I was depressed so I came over and it cheered me up.' It's those things that keep us going."

The Ungers' grandson, Jeff Unger, 18, is committed to keeping the lights twinkling indefinitely. 

"Somehow, I am going to keep this tradition going forever," Jeff said.

Thank Jesus

The Ungers light display has made them celebrities. They have appeared in newspapers and on all the local TV stations over the years.

"One year a TV station flew a helicopter over our house and when I saw our house on TV, I said to John, 'Oh look, a light is missing here and a light is missing there," Ethlyn laughed.

And, then there was the year local newspapers reported someone stole the Ungers' Baby Jesus from their front yard.

"We got Jesus back. In fact, we got about seven Jesuses. People were driving by and throwing Baby Jesuses over the fence," John said.

Other than the stolen Christ child, the Ungers say they have had minimal damage over the years, and for that they are grateful.

If you go

  • Where: 1713 N. Washington Ave.
  • When: The lights are turned on daily from 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m. through Dec 31. 
  • Make a donation: There is a bucket on the fence near Rudolph for donations to help cover costs.

What do you think of the Washington lightacular? 

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