The Burkman Holiday Home in Frisco features about 70,000 lights, Christmas music and — during more normal years — Santa and his elves. Jennifer Burkman, her husband, their sons, Jack and Alex, and Jennifer’s father build the display, which thousands of holiday revelers visit each year.

Despite a pandemic that has disrupted most everything, the Burkmans are taking their lights display to a new level. On Monday, the family was interviewed on “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” where the Burkmans announced they are scheduled to compete in ABC’s “The Great Christmas Family Light Fight” in 2021. 

The show features decorated homes and neighborhoods. About 25 families will be competing. The group with the best decorations wins a cash prize.

“It was always his dream to go bigger and bigger on the Christmas display,” Jennifer says. “… I did not think this would ever happen.”

Dalton LaFerney

Creative outlet

The lights display started two decades and thousands of bulbs ago, when Alex Burkman, now 22, was a toddler who put together his family’s new appliances.

“He’s always been really fascinated with lights and electricity,” Jennifer says.

That fascination was what got the Burkmans started on their lights display. Alex was 2 years old when the family decorated their home, starting with about 500 Christmas lights.

Alex is autistic, and working on the lights was always a creative outlet for him, a way for him to express himself.

“I like to know how things work and what makes them tick,” Alex says.

In 2013, Jennifer was relocated to Texas for work. The Burkmans first moved to Little Elm. Almost two years later, they moved into their newly-built Frisco home. That’s when the lights display started to grow into the 70,000 light display it is today.

It takes between six and eight weeks to set up the display for the thousands of people who visit their Frisco home each year. They use the display as an opportunity to give back to the community. 

The Burkmans also gather clothes and toys and donate them to family services at Little Elm ISD’s Hackberry Elementary School. Each year, they adopt two local families with parents or children who live with special needs. They raise money for the families to buy Christmas presents or pay bills for a couple months.

“It’s really important a family doesn’t have to stress over the holidays,” Jennifer says. “We know how it feels.”

Dalton LaFerney

Big dreams

This is the first year Alex is not home for the holidays.

The household electrician, Alex now works for Tesla. He lives in Memphis, where he works for the company as a service technician. He diagnoses the issues customers have with their cars and repairs them.

“I sure do miss it,” he says. “I miss being around all those people.”

Before this year, he was always around to help solve problems with the display. In 2017, he came home from college during Thanksgiving break and installed a fourth electrical panel on the family home to increase capacity for the lights.

Alex still gives the family technical support by using app-control timers on the circuits and the holiday music. His family calls him on FaceTime each evening the display is open so Alex can see the crowds who come by for photos.

“Building the display is easy,” Jennifer says.  “He had to school us on how to wire it.” 

Dalton LaFerney

No Santa this year

For the Burkman family, Santa lives in Detroit.

He comes down to Frisco for about five or six months each year to spend the holidays.

“It’s my Dad,” Jennifer says. “He looks very much like Santa. Matter of fact, his driver’s license looks like Santa.”

For the last five years, Jennifer’s father, Eugene, dressed up as Santa and passed out candy canes and sat for photos at the lights display. “People here call him ‘Sanpa,’ half Santa, half Grandpa.”

But this year, he is on the sideline. The family did not want to risk Eugene being exposed to COVID-19. He’s in his 70s, and the coronavirus is still raging, which means they have about 30,000 candy canes in storage.

This year, the Burkmans are not serving brownies or cookies, the treats they sell to raise money for their charity work. And people visiting the lights display are asked to wear a mask. But Jennifer says they are still gathering money and physical donations from people who visit the display.

“Although we’ve had to make changes, I’m overwhelmed with how much community support there is for the display and for these families and the school,” Jennifer says.

Dalton LaFerney

Dalton LaFerney is a freelance journalist based in the Dallas area. His work has appeared in the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Observer, Denton Record-Chronicle, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and the Las Vegas...