Lighting Up the Holidays
Area Residents Celebrate the Season with Festive Outdoor Decor
Every west suburban town has one or two streets, a certain neighborhood, or sometimes just one spectacular home lit up in style for the holiday season. Here are the stories of three homeowners who may have started out small but now draw visitors from all over Chicagoland to view their festive lights.
The Believe House in Naperville
Deb Nilles of Naperville and her family had always been “lookers, not doers,” when it came to holiday lights on houses.
She, her husband, Kevin Knoth, and their daughter, Megan, would drive around Naperville and other suburban Chicago neighborhoods, admiring the twinkles, sparkles and decorations hanging from other houses.
Then one year, when Christmas had already passed, Megan was at home, feeling unwell. Nilles sat nearby flipping through an after-Christmas sales circular. She spotted a life-size tin soldier on clearance, and an idea sparked: What
if she surprised her daughter by buying the life-size soldier?
And so, she did.
When the gift arrived at their doorstep at 630 Vicksburg Circle (www.napervillechristmaslights.com) in Naperville, “the smile was so bright and big that I couldn’t resist buying another piece, and it snowballed — I like that, snowballed! — from there.”
The joy her daughter experienced, Nilles figured, would be shared by others, too. And so, “The Believe House”— and the Kringleknoths (the festive nickname the family has given itself) — began.
The holiday home now features a mixture of vintage, handmade and commercial decorations, including the Island of Misfit Toys, the Grinch and a visiting Santa who strolls around upstairs. Nilles’s favorite is a giant gingerbread couple named Ray and Kay, who are “an ode to my living parents.” She and Megan did the painting of the two life-size figures and even put their thumbprints on the back.
There’s a throne, too, not for Santa but for the family’s 6-ft-tall Elf on the Shelf named T.T., for Tiny Tot. The family notifies neighbors and passersby on a special Facebook page when T.T. will be out on his throne each evening.
The third year after she started big-time home holiday decorating, Nilles found a nativity scene. It was the same model in which Kevin McCallister, played by Macaulay Culkin, hid among life-size figures to thwart a pair of bumbling burglars in the movie “Home Alone.”
“I couldn’t believe the cost,” Nilles said. But she worked extra hard that year — and she sold her top-of-the-line Jaguar. She used the money to buy the nativity set. (She bought a Buick, too, which has run just fine.)
“I don’t miss the car because I love the nativity set so much,” Nilles says.
And then, there’s the BELIEVE sign, the namesake of the family’s Believe House.
It’s one of the first things people spot when driving toward the home, and it’s been there since the beginning of the decorating frenzy.
“It brings the theme together,” says Nilles, who plans on collecting donations for The Salvation Army this year. “It gives a purpose to it all. People take away from it what they want to take away from it. It could be, ‘Believe in God.’ ‘Believe in Santa.’ ‘Believe in the season.’ People walk away with a different meaning from that sign. We want to let people have that.”
Larsen’s Light Show in Elburn
Further northwest, in Elburn, a house shines with such brilliance and animation, it can be seen from hundreds of feet, if not a mile or more, away. And if you can’t see the house, you’ll surely spot the traffic.
Cars typically line up outside of the Larsen Family’s house at 42W891 Beith Road in Elburn (www.larsenslightshow.com) starting at 4:45 p.m. in anticipation of the 5 p.m. start of the nightly show. In past years, the average wait to see the Larsen’s family light show has been up to two-and-a-half hours, says Brian Larsen, the mastermind behind the show, but newer technology can change the length of the show in real time, based on traffic. This has allowed him to cut wait times to 25 to 30 minutes.
When families pull their cars into a gravel parking lot facing the Larsen’s home, they are treated to a light show so spectacular it has been plastered all over YouTube and Facebook, garnering hundreds of thousands of views. At the house, lights flash in dazzling sync to “Für Elise,” to “Let It Go” and to “Go, Cubs Go,” which can be heard on site by tuning car radios to 88.5 FM.
For this year’s show, Larsen says he started stringing lights at his home in June and has been working on it nearly every day for months. He says he’s especially excited for this year’s show because “everything is new. It’s completely different.”
For one part of the show, he incorporates slow-motion video of his daughter blowing snow out of her hand, and the snowflakes spread all over the house.
“This year is my mind-blowing year,” he says. “It even blows my mind.”
For Larsen, the light decorating began 15 years ago. “I started off kind of slow, and then every year I add more and more, and it’s gotten bigger and bigger.”
He’s put up as many as one million lights at his house, but as light technology has become more sophisticated, it’s allowed him to cut down on the total number of bulbs. This year, he says, he’s using about 200,000 lights because “they’re three times as bright and do three times as much.” The pixels, he say, can change 12,000 different colors. (Because the family uses LED lights, Larsen says the light bill only goes up about $450 a year.)
Larsen says he’s self-taught, gleaning most of his lighting tips from YouTube and Google. He uses control boxes with computers that enable him to make graphics and designs.
Larsen says that inside the house, he, his wife, Angela, and their three kids don’t hear or see anything of the spectacle outside because of blinds. The rule in their family, he says, is that everyone must be in the house by 5 p.m. during the holiday season, or they won’t be able to make it back into the house on account of the traffic.
Larsen, who owns County Wide Landscaping in Elburn, now sets up about a half dozen light shows across the country, including one at Embassy Suites in downtown Chicago and a couple of others in Minnesota and California.
He says he and his family have kicked back in their own lot to watch the light show only twice in the last 15 years because “when I’m setting it up, I’m watching it constantly. When I’m done, I’m literally done.” He says he does love it when people post videos of the light show on their YouTube channels, especially when he can hear their reactions.
He notes the light show has made his kids, who range in age from 11 to 14, the popular ones in school. “Little do they know, they’re actually old enough to start helping me on a daily basis!” (His wife, he says, “puts up with it.”)
The Larsens don’t charge for their light show, but they have taken donations to help such organizations as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Susan G. Komen, which works to find a cure for breast cancer. The attention on the Larsen Light Show, he says, “has been overwhelming — a good overwhelming.”
Santa’s Workshop in Geneva
In Geneva, Greg Parcell started out by decorating a small storage shed 26 years ago by outlining it with multicolored lights, sticking a molded Santa Clause in the window and placing a sign outside that said Santa’s Workshop. That little workshop, Parcell says, has become the foundation of how the family display their holiday lights nowadays at 813 Cheever Avenue in Geneva (www.twasthenightbefore.com).
When the Parcell family moved to their current home on Cheever Avenue in 1996, the house did not have a storage shed, and they didn’t really need one. But their youngest son had just turned 4 years old and, not wanting to disappoint him, they built a new Santa’s Workshop for the side yard anyway. Every year, they added more and more lights.
“It’s hard to imagine that once 4-year-old Ethan is now 25 years old,” Parcell says, but “it is comforting to know Santa’s Workshop is still a central part of our display.”
Last year, Parcell says he got to share the display with his grandson, Graham, which he called “the best experience.”
Parcell and his family have featured inflatable letters spelling out J-O-Y, two snowmen staffing A to Z Trees, a Polar Bear Café, a nativity scene and, of course, Santa’s Workshop.
Over the years, Parcell has also collected thousands of toys at his home for Toys for Tots. He’s also had conversations with visitors who had come to see the house when they were kids and are now bringing their own children.
“There are many larger, more showy or flashier displays in the area,” he says, “but my goal has always been to bring a little Christmas spirit to young and old.”Edit Module