UPDATE: Royal Oak Family Dims the Lights on Holiday Display

Holiday lights are pared back to lower family's electric bill.

After lighting up the corner of Washington Avenue and 12 Mile Road for 34 years, John and Ethlyn can't bring themselves to stop stringing holiday lights, even if it means it will cost more - a lot more. 

On Wednesday night, visitors listened to the Ungers' mechanical yard Santa sing "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" as they read a sign with this message:

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

I want to thank you for coming to see our display. It is the joy of the season for us. We found it necessary to downsize this year due to a Smart Meter installed by DTE last year in October. It doubled our electric bill for November and January, but more than tripled the bill for December. We did not want to disappoint any of our friends by not putting up a display, so we just improvised. Hope you enjoy it as much as we do.

Smart meters measure and record electricity usage with digital technology instead of the traditional gears and dials. The technology involves the use of radio frequency waves to transmit data to DTE.

"We have quite a few less lights," said Ethlyn. "We had to downsize. We used to have blowups that we left on all day, but not this year. We are trying to be more efficient."

Ethlyn said despite the higher cost of keeping her yard aglow, she "can't bring herself to stop."

DTE responds

DTE Spokesman John Austerberry may have an explanation for the increase in the family's electric bill. 

"Looking back over the past two years, there is no discernible difference in usage since the AMI (Advanced Metering Infrastructure) was installed," Austerberry said. He noted, however, the family did receive a lot of estimated bills that were lower than the actual usage. That means subsequent bills needed to be higher to make up the difference once an actual reading was performed.

DTE has installed over 900,000 AMI meters, according to Austerberry, making it unnecessary for customers to get estimated bills anymore. The Ungers should expect an accurate and timely reading each month now, he said.


In 1978, the Ungers moved to 1713 N. Washington Ave. Their first Christmas, they set up a nativity scene and two plastic choir lawn ornaments. The rest, as they say, is history.

The display grew every year, plateauing in recent years. It takes over a month to pull out everything stored in their garage and a tent.

The choir has grown from two to 39 - one for each of the Ungers' eight children, 24 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

"When we take it all down, we put the light strands that don't work aside, and John spends the whole summer checking and replacing bulbs," Ethlyn said. 

'Tis the season to be merry

The Unger's turned on the lights at 5:30 p.m. and within minutes more than two dozen people, many of them children, were gazing at the lightacular.

"Three or four times a year someone will leave a letter for us," Ethlyn said. "It will say something like, 'I can't tell you how how important your lights are to me. I was depressed so I came over and it cheered me up.' It's those things that keep us going."

The Ungers' grandson, Jeff Unger, 18, is committed to keeping the lights twinkling indefinitely. 

"Somehow, I am going to keep this tradition going forever," Jeff said.

Thank Jesus

The Ungers light display has made them celebrities. They have appeared in newspapers and on all the local TV stations over the years.

"One year a TV station flew a helicopter over our house and when I saw our house on TV, I said to John, 'Oh look, a light is missing here and a light is missing there," Ethlyn laughed.

And, then there was the year local newspapers reported someone stole the Ungers' Baby Jesus from their front yard.

"We got Jesus back. In fact, we got about seven Jesuses. People were driving by and throwing Baby Jesuses over the fence," John said.

Other than the stolen Christ child, the Ungers say they have had minimal damage over the years, and for that they are grateful.

If you go

  • Where: 1713 N. Washington Ave.
  • When: The lights are turned on daily from 5:30 p.m. - 10 p.m. through Dec 31. 
  • Make a donation: There is a bucket on the fence near Rudolph for donations to help cover costs.

What do you think of the Washington lightacular? 

Judy Davids (Editor) December 06, 2012 at 12:43 PM
They have been going back and forth with DTE over the Smart Meter but so far they have not been able to come up with any resolution.
A Shaver December 06, 2012 at 01:01 PM
The first time I saw the lights I was amazed and had to bring other people to see them.They are still as beautiful and I must admit I look for them to be lit. It's like Las Vegas in Royal Oak. Worth a trip to view.
Nathan Schoenfeld December 06, 2012 at 01:22 PM
Glad to see the Unger's are still lighting up the town. It's been on the list to go by the house with out of town vistors and my daughter each and every year to see it. Keep up the great work out there and Merry Christmas!
The Duke of Royal Oak December 06, 2012 at 02:25 PM
What a wonderful tradition for the Ungers and Royal Oak. Merry Christmas.
Reddest Wing December 06, 2012 at 02:46 PM
We love it..walked over there the other night and nothing but laughter and positive energy all around. :)
anita Heap December 07, 2012 at 12:20 AM
Thanks so much to Ethlyn, John and Jeff for such a special tradition
Kathy Regan December 07, 2012 at 12:33 AM
Our bill has been higher since DTE installed their "smart meters", both at our current home and our prior residence. As our bills were never estimated, they can't use that excuse with us, but it's not like they are going to admit they are charging customers more. It's unfortunate, but I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one with a much higher bill than I used to have for the same service.
Ethlyn Unger December 09, 2012 at 12:34 AM
Just to letyou know that yes there were some estimated bills, but that was because DTE worker failed to register a replaced meter ing 2010. The smart meter still increased our nonseasonal bills by $50 - 60 a month. Yes I did have the meter checked and DTE said it was accurate.
Susan January 20, 2013 at 09:41 PM
Shame on you for not opting out of smart meters. Hope there are no children near by.


More »
Got a question? Something on your mind? Talk to your community, directly.
Note Article
Just a short thought to get the word out quickly about anything in your neighborhood.
Share something with your neighbors.What's on your mind?What's on your mind?Make an announcement, speak your mind, or sell somethingPost something