Bringing holiday light to a dark 2020 in Forestburg

Longtime Christmas light display in Forestburg to benefit Sanborn County Food Pantry

David Steele, of Forestburg, is turning his holiday tradition of holiday decorations of his home into fundraising donations to the Sanborn County Food Pantry. The display features over 100,000 points of light, video projections, synchronized music and has garnered praise from passers-through from as far away as Alabama. (Matt Gade / Republic)

FORESTBURG — In a year dominated by COVID-19, David Steele and his family are bringing a little light back into the world.

A 100,000 points of light, to be exact.

The Forestburg man and his family will again have their annual Christmas light spectacle, which features thousands of lights and lasers, synchronized music and a video projection, on display again this year at his home in the small community of less than 100 people in Sanborn County. And as an added feature this year, Steele is encouraging donations of food items or funds for the county food pantry.

“About 11 years ago it started,” Steele said in a recent interview. “That was the first year I put a strand of lights on anything. I put up a couple of strands around the front door.”

His young sons were particularly taken with the simple display, and the seeds of creativity were planted in Steele’s head. The next year, he picked up a few boxes of lights on clearance, and the year after that, he bought a few more.


“After two years, that’s when the addiction kicked in,” Steele said.

What started as a few simple strands around his front door has morphed into one of the more impressive Christmas light displays in the area. The family, composed of Steele, his wife Tracey and sons Brighten, Carter and Hayden, has turned their home, yard and surrounding property into an explosion of colorful lights, synchronized music broadcast on 99.7 FM and laser projections that requires 1.2 miles of extension cords and has delighted as many as 750 visitors a year from places as far away as Alabama.

This year will also feature a new special project. Visitors who come to see the display are encouraged to drop off money or food donations for the Sanborn County Food Pantry. A box for donations can be found at the front of the house and money donations can be dropped off in the house mailbox. Donations are gathered from both boxes nightly, Steele said. They have already brought in 16 full bags of food donations, which is a great start for the first-time endeavor.

“(Visitors can drop off) anything non-perishable. We go out and secure the case of donations and take those to the pantry when we get them,” Steele said. “If we can keep that up, we’ll be in good shape.”

The display itself has steadily grown over the course of more than a decade, with new features added on an almost yearly basis. In addition to the estimated 50,000 LED bulbs and another 50,000 laser light points displayed on various surfaces on the property, this year’s display features a holiday video projection shown on the side of one of the outbuildings. Steele also recently approached the organizers of the Forestburg Melon Festival, which holds its annual event in an adjacent lot, about decorating some of the trees on the property, to which the group agreed.

The display continues to increase in size and complexity from Steele’s research, his drive to improve the display and a festive outlook. And he has learned much over the years about exterior illumination.

“There’s an internet forum for about every hobby, with a bunch of people as crazy as I am,” Steele said. “There is definitely a learning curve. You have to make sure each dedicated circuit for the show isn’t overloaded, so there’s some math involved to make sure you’re not too hot and heavy on a circuit. Sometimes that involves flipping breakers, but you learn something every year.”


Luckily, lighting technology has undergone improvements since his first few simple strands were strung. For decades, Christmas lights used standard incandescent bulbs. Like common household light bulbs, they have been phased out in favor of more efficient LED bulbs, which cuts down on his electrical bill and reduces the strain on his home junction box.

“What really helped 10 years ago was that LED technology wasn’t as mainstream as it is now. You could only go so far with normal incandescent lights, as they draw too much power,” Steele said. “As soon as LEDs became more mainstream, it became easier to grow in volume.”

As the display grew, so did the amount of time necessary to set it up. Steele said he begins planning that year’s display in June and usually begins setup sometime in October. Assisted primarily by son Carter, they still replace around 700 to 1,000 lights per year and tune their presentation for maximum entertainment. This year’s arrangement took between 80 and 90 hours to complete in time for the official start of their display.

Steele said part of the art of a massive display like his is knowing how to balance quantity with quality. He is careful not to overload his yard so that the subtleties aren’t easily overlooked while making sure the lights create an exhilarating display. That means using space efficiently, and he admits it’s getting tougher to do a big, clean display without crowding.

Expanding into the adjacent lot has helped, but he knows he will need to have a plan in place if he wants to improve the display next year. And he’s already thinking about what he wants to do. A light cannon is a large set of bulbs that can be programmed to react with music to create images and patterns. He is also considering a fire cannon, a type of display seen at rock concerts or when NFL teams take the field prior to games.

But he’s going to have to do some planning first.

“It’s going to be one of two things. It’s going to be light cannons and fire cannons, and I haven’t decided which yet. I might have to contact my insurance company to see if (fire cannons are) allowed,” Steele said.

The display operates from dusk to 10 p.m. weekdays and from dusk to 11 p.m. weekends through Dec. 31.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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