It's like flowers in spring or colorful foliage in fall: You know it's Christmastime when everywhere you go, there are colored lights and fanciful decorations.
Americans love to get into the holiday spirit, and one way they show their excitement is with elaborate displays of light and music. Whether they're homegrown, do-it-yourself displays on the front lawn or corporate-sponsored professional productions spanning city blocks, these lavish affairs reward a sightseeing trip — and there's a good chance there's one not too far from your own home.
Some Christmas displays are modern updates of traditional shopping district standbys: The evergreen inventiveness and humor of Macy's window displays, or Chicago's Magnificent Mile. Shoppers walk by carrying gifts, kids are everywhere and holiday music ribbons the whole scene. It's like a warm Christmas bath: if holiday shopping has you worn down early, a visit can help even the Grinchiest visitor find the spirit.
Planning for the world-famous window displays at Macy's flagship store in New York City's Herald Square begins a full year before they are unveiled to the public, says Macy's spokeswoman Deanna Williams. Each year the windows have a different theme; this year, it's "Yes, Virginia," with each of six windows telling part of the story of the girl who famously wrote a letter to the New York Sun asking if there really is a Santa Claus.
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"We use Broadway theater set designers to help us produce these displays," says Williams. "These are people that have worked on shows such as Spider-Man or In The Heights."
Some of the more elaborate residential displays can match or even exceed their famous commercial cousins. They draw admirers from miles around, having built their reputations — and holiday staffing needs — year after year, continually adding elements and growing with their visitors' expectations.
The area around Richmond, Va., has become a Christmas beacon over recent decades, where cars and tour buses fill with families for hours-long sightseeing trips. Winn Tours' "Tacky Lights Tours" drives customers by some of the area's best-decorated homes, complete with personalized Christmas music and a full bar — even eggnog. "We do over 100 of these tours every season, each with a group of 40 or more people," says Mark Pounders, director of operations for Winn Tours. "There are all types: large families who come together, church groups, office parties."
Matt Burgess, publisher of the site TackyLightTour.com, has helped to coordinate the growing regional Yuletide phenomenon, offering ratings of the participating homes and Google Maps directions for self-guided tourists.
© 2012 Forbes.com