The Nicest Place in North Carolina: Sunset Hills in Greensboro

"Turning Tacky Christmas Balls Into Charity"

One family’s silly lark leads to a city realizing the true spirit of Christmas.

Jonathan and Anne Smith had lived in Greensboro’s Sunset Hills neighborhood for 16 years when, in 1996, their daughter came home from NC State’s College of Art and Design excited about an outdoor Christmas ornament she’d seen: a soccer-ball–sized sphere laced with lights.

“We can make that,” Jonathan said.

They fashioned a globe from chicken wire and wrapped it in lights. People commented how pretty it was, so they made more. Soon, other residents began making their own, and within a few years the neighborhood was attracting carloads of visitors.

The Smiths began hosting lighted-Christmas-ball–making workshops each year around Thanksgiving, attracting neighbors from all around the central North Carolina city of 270,000. One year, someone suggested they collect canned goods for the local food bank. The Smiths parked a utility trailer on their front lawn with a sign asking for donations. On the first day, they collected nearly 600 pounds of food and $700 worth of donations.

“Why not leave it up all season and see what happens?” a neighbor suggested. They did, and that year collected 2,974 pounds of food and $734 of donations to fight hunger.

In 2011, a local firefighter organized a 5K run called the Running of the Balls. Now, each year, hundreds of runners deck themselves out in Christmas lights, reindeer sweaters, and elf costumes to run beneath a canopy of Christmas balls, cheered on by revelers gathered on neighborhood lawns. All of the proceeds go to charity, the bulk of it to Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwestern North Carolina.

What began as a simple father-daughter craft project now attracts thousands of visitors each year and has provided 2.8 million meals and raised nearly $400,000 to combat hunger—especially meaningful in a county that consistently ranks in the top ten nationally for food insecurity. Inspired by Greensboro, lighted Christmas ball traditions are springing up in places as far away as Michigan, Florida, and even Sweden.

The Editors

The Nomination

Every Christmas, visitors come to Sunset Hills to see the huge “balls of light” the neighbors string high in their trees. Sunset Hillers used this opportunity to collect food for the local food bank and later create the “Running of the Balls” fundraiser.

north carolina sunset hills nicest place Courtesy Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
A gaudy light display signals a place to leave donations for the food bank.

Legend is, it all started with the Smith Family and a potato gun. Much to the annoyance of some neighbors, the Smith’s figured out that they could use a potato gun to shoot tangled up clumps of holiday lights into their trees, running extension cords across their lawn and lighting up the canopy with a surprisingly magical effect. Over the years, other neighbors joined into this odd take on holiday lighting, and now the Sunset Hills Neighborhood in Greensboro, North Carolina, is the go-to place for holiday light viewing in the Triad.

It is the holiday tradition of many local families to bake holiday cookies and whip up hot chocolate, and drive through the neighborhood blaring holiday music and spreading cheer in the days and weeks before Christmas.

Once the Smith’s realized their neighborhood had become a holiday destination, they decided to harness the spirit of the spectators and start a food drive for the local food bank. Jonathan Smith parked an old trailer, decked out in multi-coloured lights, in his front yard to collect donations. Soon, others followed suit, decorating bins and trashcans with wild lights—the more flashy the better!—to collect donations.

At some point, Nick Loflin—a local firefighter and event promoter—approached the neighborhood and suggested they lift their charitable endeavor even further and financially support the food bank—after all, Greensboro consistently ranks in the top ten most food insecure cities in the country.

Through Nick’s suggestion, Running of the Balls was created—a winding night-time road race through the neighborhood and under the lighted balls. Nick and his team bring in local musicians who stand along the route singing merrily to the runners, stations with hot chocolate and marshmallow roasting are set up throughout the event, and everyone—and we mean EVERYONE—dresses in holiday sweaters and tutus and blinking lights and reindeer antlers. Its the sweetest, cheeriest, and goofiest thing you will see.

And it has impact. Running of the Balls has helped provided millions of meals to Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina—the regional food bank that serves communities around 18 counties of Northwest North Carolina, including many right near Sunset Hills.