Magical Christmas Light Display Raises Money to Feed the Hungry


Editor’s Note: Sadly, Dave Severns passed away in October, 2011, just a little less than a year after we posted this story. Over the years Dave helped collect enough food and raise enough money to equal more than 1 million pounds of food for the hungry in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties. In 2010, the year this story first appeared, his display collected a record $84,000. Dave, and his beautiful Christmas light show, will be greatly missed.

SUNNYVALE, CA. – Dave Severns is using the power of 88,000 Christmas lights to feed a lot of hungry people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Severns is creator of the Severns-Pease Christmas Display at 1164 and 1168 Tangerine Way in Sunnyvale. This year his goal is to raise $80,000 for the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties through donations from people who come to enjoy the elaborate display.

The popular holiday exhibit started as a modest installation of lights 15 years ago and has grown into one of the largest, most creative computer-automated local holiday displays in the area.  It’s so big it covers the house, roof and yard of Severns home, and the house and yard of his next-door neighbors, the Pease family.


“It’s always a work in progress, so what you saw in 1995 doesn’t resemble what you see now,” Severns said.

With “snow” blowing from where an automated Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sits perched on top of Severns’ garage, to cute joking elves, to the 88,000 lights choreographed to rousing music, the display is extremely popular with both kids and adults alike.

When record crowds started streaming down Tangerine Way in 2002 – the first year Severns computerized the display – friends told him he should sell tickets. Severns wasn’t comfortable making money off the display, but he decided that asking for donations to help a worthy cause was a good idea.


Based on his experience leading food drives for Second Harvest at Applied Materials where he worked as an engineer, Severns put out food collection barrels and a secured box to collect money. That first year they raised $8,000 in a combined total of food and money.

“Every year since we’ve done better than the previous year, even in the economic downturn, which really surprised me,” he said. Last year the display took in more than $54,000.

Now retired, one of Severns “jobs” is overseeing the Severns Family Foundation, started by his father in the 1980s. The foundation focuses primarily on funding education and environmental projects, especially when the two can be combined. But it also matches donations to the Christmas display, up to $500 per donation, with a $30,000 annual limit.

This past year, the foundation donated $100,000 to a solar installation project at Second Harvest. When someone from the food bank told Severns that the combined total of all the years of display donations, plus the solar installation funds, was putting him near the million-pound mark for food collected, Severns’ competitive streak kicked in.

To reach the same status as some of the largest corporations in the valley who organize food drives annually, the display needs to take in $80,000 worth of food and dollars by Jan. 1.


In addition to taking food and money at the display itself, people can also donate online from the site’s website at Another fundraiser during the season is Tesla Night, when people can pay $10 each for rides in Tesla electric sports cars. Severns owns a Tesla, and is part of a local community of Tesla owners, several of whom donate their time and cars for the rides. This year the special event is on Saturday, Dec. 11.


Severns doesn’t keep track of how many hours he puts into creating, setting up, maintaining and disassembling the display each year. He and his neighbor Andy Pease start installing the display on November 1. Severns said he works 12-hour days to prepare for the opening on Thanksgiving weekend. The display runs through January 1, 5:30 to 11 p.m. every night. It takes about a week to take it down.

It’s a year-round hobby for Severns, who starts planning and ordering what he needs for the next display in February. This past winter he bulk ordered all new LED icicle lights direct from a supplier in China. The lights arrived in July, and he had a work party with friends over Labor Day weekend, to attach the lights to wooden strips for easy installation and removal. The lights are secured to the strips with 12,000 zip ties.

Choreographing the lights and music is another time-consuming piece of the project, taking up to 20 hours to program a new song added to the lengthy playlist. Severns runs the entire program off a laptop computer in his workshop.

Severns said they spend about $2,500 per house each year, if needed, on new lights and materials. His energy cost: $0. Severns installed solar panels years ago. A switch to more and more LED lights in recent years has dramatically reduced energy usage.

The “snow” blowing onto Severns’ driveway is actually soap bubbles, requiring about 4 gallons of special “snow fluid” each night. The snow is programmed to blow during certain songs, but anyone can make it snow for 30 seconds by putting a quarter into a machine between Severns’ garage doors. All the coins collected go to Second Harvest, and the foundation matches those donations.

Severns’ background as an engineer has made this full-time hobby/job possible. He’s very proud of the fact that most of the display is hand-made. In fact, Severns will take items he sees in catalogs and figure out a way to reproduce them.

Such was the case a decade ago when he saw icicle lights in a Hammecher Schlemmer catalog, before any other companies were mass-producing the now-ubiquitous lights. Severns figured out how to make his own to cover the two houses.

“This year we leap-frogged the competition again” by creating all new icicle lights, he said. “Every year we try to add something new.”

This year the display features a tribute to the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants; Severns is a season ticket holder. He created a light display of the team’s “SF” logo using orange lights. More orange lights are used throughout the display, including on Rudolf, and are featured during a special remake by Ashkon of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” that became a viral video sensation during the series, and two radio announcer calls, the 3-run homer by Edgar Renteria and the last out in the series.

Also this year a virtual Santa peeks out of one of Severns’ upstairs windows as he’s preparing for his trip to deliver presents. The image is created by a projector inside the house that projects onto a translucent film.

“It’s amazing how good it looks,” Severns said of the life-like images. “The kids have been going nuts over it.”


Inside Severns’ workshop, the nerve center of the display. The entire display is controlled from the laptop. A schematic of the display’s features is on the wall behind Severns.

The show begins at 5:30 p.m. each night with the Star Spangled Banner, featuring crowd-pleasing Christmas songs until 8 p.m. From 8 until 8:30, there’s a non-Christmas music show, this year featuring the Giant’s tribute. Then it’s back to Christmas music until 11 p.m. On weeknights, Severns plays quiet, gentle Christmas songs from 10 until 11, to put spectators in a mellow mood so as not to disturb neighbors.

And speaking of neighbors, Severns said that despite hundreds of cars streaming by throughout the holiday season, his neighbors are supportive of the display. He tries to be a good neighbor by encouraging viewers to not get too rowdy; he has a microphone hooked up to the system that allows him to make announcements to remind spectators to settle down when necessary. He also said he responds quickly to any concerns raised by neighbors.

During his many hours out front during November, he said neighbors stop by to chat, and he gets caught up on all the news of what’s happening in the neighborhood.

Overall, Severns enjoys brightening the holidays for children and adults, as well as helping to feed many hungry people locally.

“In general it’s been super gratifying,” he said.

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Visitors can tune into the 104.1 frequency to hear the music. This is also the box for monetary donations. Someone missed the food donation barrels and left a couple of cans on top of the box on a recent eveSee a related story under “Share Your Story”.


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