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In Medford, one grand holiday finale in lights?

Shortly after nightfall, a steady stream of cars begins to line up in a church parking lot on Taunton Road.

This eye-popping display has grown over the years. Amber Merefield, who inherited the decorating gene from her parents, estimates she has spent $18,000 on lights and decorations.
This eye-popping display has grown over the years. Amber Merefield, who inherited the decorating gene from her parents, estimates she has spent $18,000 on lights and decorations.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Shortly after nightfall, a steady stream of cars begins to line up in a church parking lot on Taunton Road.

Spectators scramble out of their cars - cellphones in hand - to gawk and snap photographs of the luminous house across the street.

The ritual has been repeated nightly since Thanksgiving, when the Cape Cod on the busy Medford street was emblazoned with 70,000 colorful lights for the annual holiday display that has become a cherished tradition in the Burlington County community.

The crowds have been bigger this year as word spread that this likely will be the last year for the light show. The display, dubbed "The Lights on Taunton Road" has attracted longtime visitors and newcomers.

"It's amazing. It's just so pretty," said Christine Reimel, 52, of Medford Lakes, who stopped on a recent brisk night to take a photo of the display. "It's really sad. I'll miss seeing it."

Amber Merefield, the mastermind behind the display, is leaving the state soon for a new assignment as a social worker in the Air Force.

The tradition that began decades ago with her parents at her nearby childhood home, also in Medford, when she was a youngster, will likely end with her, said Merefield, 33.

"I was sad when I was putting the lights up," she admitted in a recent interview. "I was like, 'Wow, this is the last year.' "

Merefield said the lights had taken on a special meaning for some visitors during the holidays. Such as a recent divorcée or the woman who sent a message last year that seeing the sparkling lights lifted her spirits, she said.

"I was driving home to my apartment and for absolutely no reason extreme sadness just kicked in, I just started having uncontrollable thoughts of not wanting to live anymore," the woman wrote to Merefield in a private Facebook message. "When I saw your house I literally just stopped and pulled over. It was so beautiful and instantly I just felt better."

The woman told Merefield that she had not experienced those sentiments since that night. Merefield, who has served in the military as a mental health technician for about 10 years, never heard from the woman again.

"Maybe something as simple as a few lights made an impact on something as drastic as suicide!" the woman wrote.

The lights are turned on by a timer every day at 5 p.m. and remain on until on 11. They will remain on until Jan. 3.

It is not uncommon to see spectators gather in the parking lot of St. Peter's Episcopal Church across the street to view the lights. Some motorists stop in front of the house or get out to take photos in the yard.

"I can't believe that someone would go to all of this trouble," said Sandy Turner, of New Hope, Pa., visiting recently with her husband and two granddaughters. "This has really lifted my spirits. This is a gift."

Said her granddaughter Madison, 9: "It's amazing."

Merefield, an only child, and her parents made decorating their ranch-style house with lights an annual holiday in the 1990s. Her parents said the elaborate display was for her, she said.

"The three of us would do it together," she recalled. "My dad and I would get on the roof."

After Merefield joined the military in 2002, her parents scaled back their holiday display. They began entrusting their lights to her when she was assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and returned to the area several years later.

Starting small

She began putting up modest displays, mainly on the shrubs outside the Cape Cod on Taunton Road, where she lives with her 90-year-old paternal grandmother, Marge.

"Every year from there it grew," Merefield said. "As I started to see the impact that it had on the community, that really kept me going."

After her mother, Donna, passed away in 2012, Merefield decided to cover the entire house with lights. She was inspired partly by an online project, "Planet Christmas."

She eventually replaced her parents' lights with more energy-efficient LED lights. She estimates that she has invested about $18,000 in lights and decorations. The display adds about $80 to the family's electric bill for the season.

Merefield began preparing for this year's display in October, checking her collection of lights to see what needed repairs.

Because of potential liability issues, Merefield graciously declined offers of help from neighbors. She has twice fallen from a ladder while putting lights on the rooftop but was not seriously injured. Relatives, including her father, usually pitch in with the display.

Traffic reports

Her grandmother enjoys counting the cars that pass by the display and gives Merefield daily reports on the traffic.

Merefield also decorated the home of her maternal grandmother, Dorothea Matthews, 87, who lives in a nearby retirement community, but "only with 2,000 lights."

"I think it's wonderful. Amber does a great job," said her grandmother Marge Merefield. "I hear about it all the time from everybody. I'm just happy they enjoy it."

Amber is the youngest of her nine grandchildren.

The house, shrubs, trees, and fence are all adorned with lights. There are also about 70 other festive items such as a giant snowman, a Rudolph reindeer, globes, trees made by Merefield from tomato crates, and a 101/2-foot North Pole sign.

Merefield has received mail and gifts from passersby to express their appreciation for the countless hours and money she invests in the display. Carolers from a local Girl Scout troop stopped by last week.

"One of the things I enjoy is helping people," Merefield said. "People really enjoy it, and it has become a special part of their holiday tradition."

856-779-3814 @mlburney