Early in October each year, Elaine Pikounis starts decorating for the holidays. But her efforts are not for Halloween and not for Thanksgiving.
For the past 21 years, Pikounis has started the painstaking process of decorating her family's home in Ellicott City with tens of thousands of lights, dozens of light-up figures, an 11-piece manger scene, wreaths, Christmas trees and lanterns for the Christmas holidays.
The entire roof of the house is covered with strings of lights, topped by a large star of -- what else -- more lights.
Pikounis said she sees her holiday decorating efforts as a gift to the community -- something she hopes dozens of families, especially those with young children, can enjoy year after year.
And each year, the Pikounis home is the destination of hundreds of sightseers, or rather lightseers, who travel as much as an hour to get a look at the festively decorated brick colonial.
"Lots of people come by. Some take photos, others leave notes. They say, 'My whole family enjoys it. Keep it up,' " she said.
"One guy, a gas station owner, came a few years back on a night it was snowing. He said he and his wife and children stayed for four hours. It was the most beautiful thing they had seen."
The Pikounises are one of a handful of county families who go all out for the holiday season, putting in hours and hours stringing up lights and setting up Christmas displays.
Pikounis' mother and stepfather, Diana and Ferdinalis Athanasios, both 72, still decorate their home on St. John's Lane in Ellicott City with more than 10,000 lights and dozens of other decorations every year.
Ferdinalis Athanasios, who said it takes several days of full-time work to get the job done, intends to keep up the tradition for years to come.
"My wife likes the spirit of Christmas," he said. "That's why we do it."
Several county families who partake in annual decorating fests expressed the same reason for doing it -- they hope to spread the holiday spirit to the rest of the community.
"I like it because I see how much other people appreciate it," said Pikounis, who does most of the decorating herself.
"We do it for the other people. We get a lot of satisfaction out of other people enjoying it," said Barbara Colby, whose home in the Village of Owen Brown in Columbia is widely known as one of the best-dressed houses in town.
The Colby home, which has been decked to the rafters for the past six years, features more than 13,000 lights, "Merry Christmas" and "Happy New Year" written across the roof in lights, a 15-piece Nativity set, a train and railroad tracks and Santa's workshop, complete with little elves inside.
Francis "Butch" Colby, a consultant to General Physics in Columbia, does most of the decorating himself with the help of some good friends, his wife said.
These gifts of lights don't come cheap.
Families said to deck a house from top to bottom increased their electric bills an average of $150 to $200 for the month of December.
And for the Colbys, who don't have enough room in their house to store all of their holiday gear, the tradition costs an extra $75 a month -- or $900 annually -- to store the decorations at a self-storage facility.
But the expense and effort does not go unnoticed.
On a recent night, a new car pulled up in front of the Colby home every couple of minutes to admire the light show. Many got out of their cars to walk around the perimeter of the property.
Barbara Colby said people knock on their door every night after the lights are turned on in early December to say how much they enjoy them.
Some even make small donations to help pay for the hefty electricity bills.
"We collect about $50 a year to help cover the cost," she said.
This year, the Colbys also decided to ask onlookers to donate toys that could be distributed to needy families.
They already have collected several large trash bags full, she said. All the toys will be given to the Salvation Army to be distributed to Howard County families, she said.
Some sightseers encountered in front of the bedecked houses felt they were, well, a little overdone.
"At Christmastime, you can always tell which houses have velvet Elvis paintings inside," said one onlooker.
But even those who thought some homes were dressed to excess had to admit they made a spectacular sight.
And, of course, the kids all love them.
Jeffrey Adams, of Eldersburg, was driving down St. John's Lane when he spotted the Ferdinalis' home. He stopped so his 2-year-old daughter, Caitlin, could enjoy the scene.
"She's crazy about the lights," he said.