The light-covered chicken-wire balls twinkling from trees along Hillside Avenue wont be the flashiest decorations in Charlotte. But they may come closest to capturing the spirit of the holidays.
Theyre part of a movement that was born in Greensboro and has gone viral. Its about bringing neighborhoods together to hand-craft the glowing globes, find creative ways to hoist them high into trees and delight passersby.
And a 16-year-old who lives on Hillside, in the Myers Park neighborhood, is using this years visual magic to draw food donations for the hungry. That, too, reflects the path charted by Jonathan and Anne Smith of Greensboro; their collection trailer in the Sunset Hills neighborhood netted 7,165 pounds of food and $10,500 in cash last year.
For the Smiths, both financial planners in their 60s, the value of the light displays cant be measured with numbers.
The essence of the lighted balls is theres a different currency, says Jonathan Smith. Its using the ordinary to reinvest in a sacred space.
Mason Schmitt, a junior at Myers Park High, hadnt talked to the Smiths when she decided to tie her Girl Scout Gold Award project to the light-ball display. Shes laying out plans to have a station outside her house starting Dec. 1, with teens helping collect for Loaves & Fishes.
Jonathan Smith says its a natural evolution: The heart of mankind longs to do something that matters.
Chicken wire and lemons
The Smiths dont claim they invented the idea of hanging lighted balls in trees. And they only set out to decorate their own yard 16 years ago, when daughter Alison came home from N.C. State University with a sketch of light balls shed seen hanging at a home in Raleigh.
The Smiths bought chicken wire, shaped it into a sphere, covered it with lights and flung the ball into a tree. As Jonathan Smith tells it, the more cars slowed down to look, the more balls his family created.
Son Justin, a high school student at the time, suggested using his homemade potato gun to reach higher limbs. They ran twine through lemons and shot them into higher branches, using the twine to hoist light balls.
The sound of potato cannons kind of brings neighbors out to see whats going on, Jonathan Smith said.
Every year a few more neighbors joined in the fun.
After six years, the Smiths decided to host a ball-making party. By then, residents of other areas were asking for tips, too. The Smiths ended up getting a permit to close off the street and bought 1,000 feet of chicken wire.
At the end of the day, 200 or 300 balls were released into the wild, Smith quips.
More than fun
The party became an annual event. Eventually a neighbor suggested using it to do some good. The Smiths invited participants to bring canned goods for a Greensboro food bank. After collecting 527 pounds from the party in 2007, they put out a trailer and invited others to donate. By the end of the season they had almost 3,000 pounds.
While the primary goal remains to amaze and surprise and delight other people, the Smiths say there are deeper effects. Their neighborhood is near a cancer center, and they have heard from patients who schedule their treatments for late afternoon so they can drive through the tunnel of colorful balls.
For a little bit, Jonathan Smith says, everything in the world is all right.
Ball gets rolling
The lighted balls have spread across Greensboro. And as residents move away and visitors see the Sunset Hills display, the chicken-wire decorations have reached even further.
In Charlottes Myers Park and Plaza Midwood neighborhoods, the light balls came via visits to Greensboro relatives.
Brian and Julie Bostic, who live on Thomas Avenue in Plaza Midwood, held a block party to make light balls last year. The balls glittering from towering trees near the shops and restaurants on Central Avenue drew admirers from all over.
On Hillside, what started with one family evolved into decorating parties the past three years. As word got around, the spectators grew.
You could see people walking up with their kids on their shoulders from other neighborhoods, said Steve Schmitt, Masons father.
Schmitt, an architect, this year created a light ball with a 6-foot diameter (most are closer to 18 inches), featuring a PVC-pipe frame and 1,100 lights. It hangs from a huge tree in the 200 block of Hillside.
Mason and her friend Charles Snover, a Myers Park sophomore, are making and hanging light balls for neighbors in exchange for donations to the food drive. Charles, a baseball player, likes to use a baseball to launch his twine high into the trees. Other techniques reported in Charlotte and Greensboro involve fishing rods, lacrosse sticks and various heavy objects flung into trees.
Mason plans to enlist friends to help with collections.
Ideally, this is going to be something that happens every year, she said.
The Internet has also helped spread the word. The Smiths launched a blog in 2006. A friend who attended one of the workshops made a video telling the Sunset Hills story.
LifeHacker.com, a site that shares tips on software and life skills, posted the video and blog link on its Holidays page in 2009, driving even more web traffic. On Friday alone, the Smiths blog showed visits from around North Carolina and from Boston and St. Paul, Minn.
Andrew Gale, who lives in south Charlotte, had been watching the blog since he fell in love with the Hillside lights last year. When he learned the Smiths were inviting people to Sunset Hills for a ball-making party earlier this month, he hit the road.
He came back with six lighted tree balls five for his house and one for his mothers condo.