Dreaming of a Light Christmas

December 2017 View more

Whether it’s the cherished Nativity displays we’ve enjoyed since childhood, or the latest in choreographed light-show wizardry, neighborhood Christmas displays have never been more varied, more popular or more numerous. Griswold-kitsch? Heart-warming manger scene? Las Vegas light show? Gather up the family and take a magical evening drive this holiday season.

Larsen’s Light Show
42W891 Beith Road, Elburn

Winning the 2013 ABC reality show contest, “The Great Christmas Light Fight,” Larsen’s Light Show in rural Elburn continues to steal the show. The ever-growing display now uses over one million lights that cascade, dance and pulse to computer-choreographed music broadcast over a dedicated FM channel. Today the attraction draws viewers by the thousands, and for many, it has become an annual Christmas tradition.

Its creator, Brian Larsen, traces his passion for this yearly event to a remarkable Christmas light display he once saw as a ten-year-old during his family’s annual car tour of neighborhood Christmas lights in Batavia. He was hooked. Years later, however, when he and his wife first decorated their Elburn home in 2006 with static lights, something was missing. He knew he wanted more. Soon after, he discovered how to program lights to wink and blink to music, and the rest is history.

Lehnertz Avenue Christmas Display
Lehnertz Avenue, Aurora

Celebrated as Illinois’ oldest free traditional Christmas display, this holiday favorite began in 1952 when a small group of neighbors decided to tell the Biblical story progressively, from house to house. Today, 66 years later, Lehnertz Avenue is still telling the same story in their modest little neighborhood, which draws over 20,000 from as far away as Iowa, Wisconsin and Indiana.

Each year before December 1, the street fills with teams of neighbors, working hard and helping one another, the newcomers learning from the old. The music, street pole decorations, lighting, lifesize camels, shepherds, (and now some Peanuts additions along adjacent streets), all bear the handiwork of neighbors who have participated over generations to tell the same story, culminating in a manger scene.

“The street is peaceful, even when it’s busy,” explains Lisa Hardekopf, whose grandparents lived on the street (and their parents before them). “I think people feel something important when they are able to get out of their cars and stand in front of the manger in the snow while Christmas music plays in the background. I love this street and am grateful for the possibility of new people finding out about it.”

Candy Cane Canyon Trail
371 Canyon Trail, Carol Stream

Every fall, Jim and Dawn Slanker transform their white stucco, half-timber home into a magical, life-size gingerbread house, complete with candy cane window trim, glowing “gumdrop” lights, cheery elves and snowmen and stringing lights on their Christmas tree forest. Dubbed the “Candy Cane Canyon Trail,” this labor of love has been delighting visitors since its humble beginnings in 1999.

Like many holiday-display hobbyists, the Slankers have turned their vision of sugarplums into reality a little more each year, much to the joy of visitors from near and far. “We decorate for many reasons—it’s certainly an outlet for our creativity and something we enjoy doing together,” they admit. “But 50 years from now, people where we work won’t sit around and regale each other with stories about emails we would send or conference calls we would facilitate, but there will be lots of children today who will tell their grandchildren about this crazy Christmas house where they grew up. Rarely do you get the opportunity to do something that can have a positive effect on so many.”

The Parcell Family House
813 Cheever Avenue, Geneva

Tradition has played a special role in another popular holiday display, now in its 20th year. When Greg Parcell’s family moved to their new home in 1996, they built a “Santa’s Workshop” that first Christmas to carry over a tradition begun at their former home for the sake of their son Ethan (then four years old).

Every year they added a little more, until today its menagerie of displays, including the penguins and the “Polar Bear Cafe,” bring back those who fondly remember it as children. Perhaps an even greater legacy of Parcell’s holiday cheer are the thousands of toys people have donated to its official drop box for Marine Toys for Tots, which distributes the gifts to Fox Valley kids in need.

Citing letters from children, the fun of creating the display and the joy it gives people who pass by, Parcell admits he now has another reason to keep the tradition going. “I got to share the display with my new grandson Graham,” he says, “Being able to introduce a new family was the best experience.”

Hughes Digital Christmas
2S231 Valley Road, Lombard

When Mike Hughes, self-proclaimed electronics geek, discovered the joy of using a 64-channel controller to set up a fantastic light display for his family’s home in Lombard in 2010, it was only the beginning. This Christmas—using a whopping 11,500 channels—Hughes is hopeful his dazzling attraction of dancing lights, color and sound will be as much fun for new and returning visitors as it is for his own family.

“For me the best part is the faces of the kids, pressed up to the car windows, eyes wide open in wonderment,” says Hughes, who adds how much he also appreciates the generosity people have contributed over the years to his on-site donations for St. John’s Food Pantry in Lombard. The joy from every side has been a win-win. “Knowing that I can bring that kind of Christmas cheer to people makes it all worth it.”

Let There Be Light
If you’re looking for a memorable way to enjoy the holiday sights this season, drop by some of your favorite summer spots that have turned into wintery wonderlands. From the twinkling-light transformation of the Naper Settlement to nearby Cosley Zoo in Wheaton, you’ll love the way your favorite gardens, parks and museums turn on the lights and the winter charm.

Naper Lights
For 21 very special nights beginning November 24, over 200,000 visitors enjoy Naper Settlement’s (523 South Webster Avenue) amazing transformation into a Christmas light extravaganza. Naperville Sunrise Rotary partners with the Settlement for this free event—and you might even spy the jolly old elf.

Holiday Light Tours
Starting December 1, Naperville Trolley & Tours will shuttle you by Naperville’s most festive, decorated homes in either the southern or northern parts of the city. Public and private tours are available; rates vary.

Holiday Express
Take a magical ride on the Holiday Express Train, past Sugar Plum Playland and the Candy Cane Village at Blackberry Farm in Aurora (101 West Illinois Avenue). Weekends December 2–17; admission is $5 and can be purchased online in advance.

Festival of Lights
From November 24 to December 30, Wheaton favorite Cosley Zoo (1356 North Gary Avenue) features 20,000 twinkling lights and Christmas trees for sale alongside its animal friends. The zoo is open 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; lights come on at 3:00 p.m. Admission is free, and hot cocoa is plentiful.

Holiday Magic
Experience Brookfield Zoo’s (8400 West 31st Street) wonderland beneath one million twinkling LED lights, a 41-foot talking tree, train display, magic show, carolers, ice carving demonstrations and special visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus. Regular admission rates apply. The zoo is open 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m.; festivities begin at 4:00 p.m.