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The world seems to come alive during the holidays — light poles become colorful, beaming guides on the roadside, our favorite stores seem a little more lively with murals or decals of winter scenery, and dim neighborhoods light up with intricate holiday displays all for Santa to enjoy during his one-night gifting spree.
For New York-based RE/MAX associate broker Christine Rowley, those displays are more than just a holiday tradition. They’re an opportunity to bring her community together during a time that can be bittersweet for those who are lonely, grieving the loss of family and friends, or who need a helping hand.
“Christmas is one of my favorite times during the year,” she told Inman. “I don’t know if you watch the light contests on TV, but I was watching [them] and seeing how they were doing it for good causes.”
“It’s always been very important to me to give back throughout my whole life, no matter where I was working or what I was doing,” she added. “So when I saw these shows, I thought, ‘Why can’t I do something like that here and tie it into giving back for our community?'”
Rowley immediately began planning her annual holiday light contest, which has become a well-known tradition in Putnam and Westchester counties over the past five years. Every year, three lighting maestros can win cash prizes ranging from $250 to $1,000 for their displays.
Before contestants started shelling out hundreds of dollars, Rowley let everyone know the contest was more about embodying “love and the holiday spirit” rather than making the biggest display.
“It’s not necessarily about the quantity of lights or the big, giant displays,” she said. “It could be a beautiful little window from an apartment building that has tremendous sentiments and love put into it.”
“I remember growing up and my mom was telling the stories about how they didn’t have a lot of money growing up, and the kids used to get so excited to decorate that one window every year, they used to make a bunch of homemade decorations and put lights around them,” she added. “So it’s not necessarily how big it is, it’s more the loving care put into it.”
Rowley said her favorite display thus far came from a teenager who created a display in honor of his grandfather who’d passed away right before the 2019 contest. The display was small, but he’d handmade every single element — something that won over Rowley’s heart.
“We had one family that one last year, who the grandfather passed away, and the grandson, who’s a teenager, just followed his grandfather’s passion of decorating and making every decoration by hand,” she said. “They didn’t have a huge display, but I mean the time that he put into it was incredible.”
In addition to cash prizes, Rowley chooses a nonprofit to support with a $500 donation. This year, Rowley chose My Brother Vinny, a nonprofit that supports people with disabilities and veterans who need help with housing.
“They are a really nice organization who basically implements community-based events towards improving the life, happiness, and health of emotionally, physically, and intellectually challenged people,” she said. “They also help veterans by supplying furniture and housewares. A lot of veterans wind up being homeless and it’s a really sad thing in our society.”
Rowley said community members make donations as well, and more times than not, the prize winners will donate a portion of their winnings as well.
“Many times you’ll see the contestants will even donate portions back of their prizes. It’s really a beautiful thing,” she said. “Also other people wind up making donations just by seeing me sharing the flyers and doing these contests.”
This year’s holiday contest is in full swing, with the winners receiving their prizes by the end of the year.
“It’s really about raising awareness for these nonprofits and having some fun in the community while you’re at it,” Rowley added.