Elevate Your Holiday Lights with Athens’ ‘Electrical Elf’

Some people consider the days following Thanksgiving to be the official start of holiday decorating. Jonathan Ruhlen, an Athens resident, began working on his holiday light display nearly four months ago. 

 Why It’s Newsworthy: For the fifth year in a row, Athens resident Jonathan Ruhlen, known as the ‘Electrical Elf,’ transforms his home on River Bottom Road into an entertaining light show for all ages. 

The River Bottom Road display, which Ruhlen says attracts a few hundred onlookers each December, features 13,000 lights and 45 strands synchronized to holiday tunes, movie scenes and game day classics. 

“I’ve always put Christmas lights up, but not always synchronized to music,” he said. “That was the next level.”

The tradition began five years ago after a friend showed Ruhlen their all-in-one device that synchronized lights with 20 pre-programmed holiday songs. 

“I wanted to do something like that, but I didn’t like that I didn’t have enough control over what was going to happen,” Ruhlen said.

After some research, Ruhlen realized more advanced equipment came with a high cost — upwards of $1,500 to $3,000. With no prior programming experience, he decided to take matters into his own hands and turn to YouTube to learn. From there, the ‘Electrical Elf’ was born

Ruhlen shares his tips on how to make your “lights shine well” on a budget.

Two wire light-up reindeer sit in front of Jonathan Ruhlen’s home-turned-light show on River Bottom Road in Athens. (Photo/Isabelle Manders)

Know Your Options

First, decide what scale works best for you and your wallet. 

“There’s no judgment from the ‘Electrical Elf,’” Ruhlen said.

If that means adding a light show, think about how much control over the music and lights you would like to have. Smaller-scale sound and light systems tend to be easier to use but don’t allow for as much creative freedom.

Shop After the Holidays

To save money, Ruhlen typically waits until after Christmas to upgrade and buy new lights.

“Don’t buy lights this year, for this year,” he said. 

Decide what lights you would like to add and look around various stores to find the best deal. If a store still has a lot of inventory, Ruhlen suggests waiting a little longer.

Buy an Extra

When shopping these sales, Ruhlen always buys the number of strands he needs, plus one extra. If any lights go out, he can use bulbs from the spare strand to refill.

“With it being half off, it saves a lot of money and I’m able to maintain it for five to 10 years,” he said.

Maintenance is Key

Properly maintaining your lights during the off-season will keep you from having to buy replacements. Ruhlen says many homeowners make the mistake of presumptively throwing away faulty lights. 

“As I’m taking all the lights down, I do a maintenance check to make sure they’re all working before I put them away.” 

That way, if any lights are out the next year, Ruhlen knows to check for loose bulbs rather than throw the entire strand away. 

Several signs placed throughout Ruhlen’s yard direct visitors to tune into 104.1 on their car radios. “I wanted a way that the music could be played and it doesn’t aggravate the neighbors,” Ruhlen said. (Photo/Isabelle Manders)

Help is Around Every (Digital) Corner

Don’t let inexperience scare you from trying to take your decorating skills to the next level.

“There’s a lot of resources out there. You don’t have to be a programmer at all to be able to do this,” Ruhlen said. 

By watching various walkthrough videos on YouTube, Ruhlen was able to learn everything he needed to start, from wiring tutorials to explaining what boards were needed. 

“There’s what’s called an Arduino board that connects to all these relays and I actually had to put code into that in order to make it work,” Ruhlen said. “That was a little bit of a struggle.”

Whenever he struggles with coding and can’t find the answers on YouTube, Ruhlen turns to various online chats and forums for direct assistance. 

Change Your Perspective

Once you’ve finished programming, it’s time to start decorating. For Ruhlen, the decorating process can take about 20 hours over the course of five days. 

“There is work involved but it’s the joy that it brings people and the joy that it brings my daughters that definitely makes it worthwhile,” Ruhlen said.

With the purpose of bringing joy to others, it’s important to understand how your lights will look to visitors and passers-by. 

“Go out to the street and put a chair next to the street,” he said. “That’s kind of going to be eye level of where someone is in a car so you can see from that perspective.”

Ruhlen’s light show will run this month from 6-10 p.m.

Isabelle Manders is a senior majoring in journalism and biology, with an emphasis in marine science.



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