Wacky Tacky Christmas Light Tour Rides Again!

By Verna Gates | Photography courtesy of Mark Peavy

Thousands of lights! Gravity defying displays! Blow-ups with more hot air than a room full of politicians! It’s the Wacky Tacky Christmas Light Tour. This holiday event takes partygoers on buses for a guided tour of the best of the worst Christmas displays in Birmingham, Alabama.
The Wacky Tacky Light Tour is serious fun – in 2017, it funded financial aid for 214 under-resourced children to attend Fresh Air Family’s 26 award-winning science camps. “Gross Out Camp” is hands-on field biology that takes children and youth outdoors into their native habitat. The total monies raised for financial aid totaled $43,500 in 2016. The organization works to encourage diversity and last year, more than 40 percent of the summer campers who attended used full scholarships.
As a child, I loved those December nights in the big family car, driving around neighborhoods in search of Christmas lights. As an adult, I started taking friends along with me, first one, then a carload, then caravans and finally rented vans. The Wacky Tacky Christmas Light Tour began five years ago when a friend suggested the tour would make a great fundraiser for Fresh Air Family, the nonprofit I founded in 2006. In 2012, two buses took 80 people around to see the lights. In 2016, 1,058 came. This year, more than 1,200 are expected to participate in what has quickly become a local holiday tradition.
“I knew my date was a keeper when he slapped on a pair of lighted reindeer ears for a Wacky Tacky ride. We have attended every year since and it is the best anniversary party ever. Perhaps, we will come as Mr. and Mrs. Claus soon!” said Carla Whitehead, a perennial rider from Birmingham..
Every year, Wacky Tacky volunteers scour the town for over-the-top Christmas displays. Judges look for humor and outrageous volume of bulbs and high-wattage electricity. The standards are really low, and hard to meet. In fact, the Griswold house from Christmas Vacation would be considered “a maybe” in Birmingham’s highly competitive holiday cheer – random, colorful lights are preferred.
After the scouting reports are complete, a two-hour route, which includes a stop for libations and a free snack, is crafted. Typically, 14 big displays are selected, with the route cruising down as many colorful streets as possible. The tour is guided, with volunteers pointing out things such as a completely red house referred to as a religiously-themed bordello or the strand of yellow lights leading from a rooftop Santa to a pool on the ground, indicating, well, yellow snow.
‘Do the homeowners resent being chosen’ is a frequently asked question. The answer: if you get on your roof and string 30,000 lights off of it, you have to admit that you are either wacky or tacky, or both, but you are certainly not cursed with shyness. In fact, house decorators lobby to be on the tour, competing with outlandish blow-ups, like crocodile bands sporting Santa hats or an auto-matron Santa perpetually emerging from a North Pole outhouse or a reindeer driving a tractor with a spinning wheel constantly revealing that he has, indeed, run over Grandma.

Perennial favorites include the Hanukkah House, where the editor of the local Jewish magazine took a “Joy to the World,” and whacked off the “j,” giving the whole tour a multicultural view from atop the 6-foot spinning dreidel. Children love the stop as they all receive chocolate geld from the homeowner who is campaigning for Jews to join him in celebrating Hanukkah — the Festival of Lights.
Santa’s Trailer Park is packed with so many blow-ups that it’s a walking tour. It includes a Whack-a-Penguin game and Santa in every imaginable activity from skiing to giving out snow cones from a hippie minibus. The Auburn House pays homage to both of Alabama’s major religions, with a nativity scene backlit by “War Eagle!”
Why do so many people participate in such silliness? Well, it’s funny and lighthearted. Laughs are sometimes hard to come by during the holidays, which can be loaded with stress and loneliness. A bit of old-school fun can reignite the holiday spirit. One woman celebrant, whose name was Ann, had just received her all-clear from cancer diagnosis and gathered her friends to celebrate on a Wacky Tacky bus last year.
“I just wanted to do something totally goofy that could allow me to forget my struggles and relish living,” she said. “And all I had to do to have a party was hop on a bus – no cleaning, no cooking and no driving. It also gave me the opportunity to wear my ugly Christmas sweater.”
The “anti-Norman Rockwell” Christmas party brings out the child once again, with adults and kids wearing everything from Christmas pajamas to Cousin Eddie bathrobes complete with ear-flap caps. A broad array of ugly sweaters, elf ears, lighted and singing Santa hats, and costumes keep the photo booth cranking out holiday cheer.
While many people book individual tickets, a lot of “Wacky Tackiers” join groups on the buses. One of the goals for some is to gather enough people to “take over a bus,” with seating ranging from 14 to 35. Groups such as book clubs, dance clubs, Sunday school classes, professional organizations and family groups have gathered to create private party buses. Even businesses rent a bus for the night for company Christmas parties. Among the most elated party goers are the moms’ clubs: women free from babies and toddlers for an evening, with husbands picking them up. Rare Transportation, the bus company, allows everything but big coolers and red wine on their buses, so the party is ready-made.
Singing and even dancing on the buses are common, especially after the margarita stop. Tour guides are armed with a litany of holiday songs, including several versions of “Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg,” a popular tune well known to parents and kids. Buses from 5:30-6:30 pm are family-friendly.
Christmas lights stand as one of our truly American obsessions. And the South reigns in spectacular over-the-top, humor-infused sun-bright displays. Just embrace your inner tacky and enjoy the ride.
This year’s Wacky Tacky Light Tour is December 12, 13 and 14. Riders meet in the upstairs party room at Avondale Brewing Company in Birmingham, Alabama. Buses leave every 20 minutes starting at 5:30 with the last bus leaving at 8 pm. For ticket information, please visit www.WackyTacky.org. Group reservations can be requested at Events@FreshAirFamily.org.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.