BY KATE ALBRIGHT
for Montclair Local
Matt Carino, 23, was in second grade when he strung his first set of lights on the tree outside his parents’ home on Myrtle Avenue. Over the years, his passion for lighting grew, along with the strings of lights.
It’s become a tradition for Montclairians to take in Carino’s elaborate holiday display, Lights on Myrtle, but this year, during the pandemic, the family wanted to go all out. This year the display has just over 100,000 lights.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I loved Christmas lighting. I think the biggest thing then was I loved going to see the lights at the Bronx Zoo, and that’s actually what inspired me to do a lot of what I do now,” said Carino, who took his skills and passion to the next level: He recently graduated from Pace University, where he studied lighting design.
Like many parents, the Carinos made a tradition of driving around to see the Christmas lights on Montclair houses. In 2005, when Carino was in second grade, he realized he could decorate his own home. His parents decorated, but in a more traditional way, a wreath on the door and a candle in every window.
His first attempt was simple: “I put some clear lights around the tree that we had.”
Year after year, the family home became brighter and brighter during the holiday season, as he began stocking up on lights at after-Christmas sales.
“I was getting all the lights that I could for the next year. For a lot of the first part of it, I used a lot of the old-school bigger light bulbs,” Carino said.
As his collection of lights grew, his father got into helping out.
For his birthday one year, his father pulled him out of school to visit the Bronx Zoo to see how they set up the display there.
“I remember seeing a video that came out a long time ago, and I think it was one of the first years they did their lights. I think it was Martha Stewart, and they were at the zoo. And they were describing the process and they said, ‘We start in September.’ So I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re going to go in September and October, and we’ll probably see them putting up the lights,’” he said.
He still has the photos he took with the guys who were setting up the displays and answering his myriad questions.
The visits to the zoo were a big part of his learning experience, he said. Inspired by those displays, Carino then took it to the next level and began creating light topiaries in the shape of bears and snowflakes.
“I would take wire and bend the wire into shapes and wrap them in lights, which was a bigger step than just doing the strings of light on the bushes,” he said.
By studying the pictures he took of the zoo displays for hours and hours, he was soon creating them on his front lawn.
He gives his parents credit for being so supportive as the display and his skills grew over the years.
“I don’t know if they ever thought it would get this big. I mean, at first, again, it was just kind of simple … They saw the progression over the years, but I don’t know if they ever thought it would get to the size it is right now,” Carino said.
Over the years residents have sent him letters thanking him for making their holiday brighter.
This year, however, a little girl really touched his heart. The girl, about 3 or 4, called the house a castle.
“She said, ‘Mom, I want to go in that castle.’ I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ in my head. And the mom was like, ‘No, that’s someone’s house.’ And she was like, ‘No, I want to go in the castle.’ It’s just something about the magic of Christmas – you know, it’s not a castle. We all know that, but that this little kid was so mesmerized, I just thought it was such a magical little moment,” Carino said.
When COVID hit in the spring, the family pulled out the lights early and did a little installation all over the trees and bushes and made a sign that said “Together Apart.”
As the pandemic continued, Carino knew they had to do something really big for this holiday, but he chose mostly white for the lights.
“The way that we have the house this year is much, much different,” he said. “I wanted to go with a solid color, white. Something about white light really evokes a lot of emotion in people. Ever since lighting was first created, in the late 1800s, where they would do these giant parks where people would go see light and it was all white. And I think something about that is very magical and still evokes that kind of emotion.”
They also have a 30-foot digital Christmas tree. The lights are programmable with colors and fun effects, like snow falling on it and a candy-cane swirl.
“People sit for 20 minutes just watching it go through all of these different colors and changes,” Carino said.
There’s also a tunnel of 8,000 lights that goes down the driveway, which has become a favorite photo spot.
The family also rented a 60-foot lift to get the lights on the roof and high up in the trees this year.
Does he ever feel competitive, to have the biggest light show on the block?
“I have rooms and rooms filled with lights. I can put three times more up than what is actually up, but I really think that design is so important to me that I don’t do that. I don’t think it gets to the point where I need to have the most lights than anyone in the world, because I really think a big part of it is the design aspect,” he said.
As for his electric bill, Carino wouldn’t divulge.
“You know, to be completely honest, I don’t like focusing on how much it costs. On the electrical side, we use a lot of LED, so it’s not that much. It brings the bill down a lot,” he said.
How to Visit:
Dec. 1–Jan. 7, 4:30 – 10:30 p.m. Weather permitting. Lights will be off in the event of rain.