It was the lights and Santas from her Christmas past that inspired Mary Edsey to write her book.
Every year after Thanksgiving her family piled into the car and drove around their northwest-side neighborhood, gawking at the displays, Edsey recalls: "I often thought about the people who lived in those houses with the gorgeous lights and displays. Who are they? Why do they do it? I guess there's a little artist in us all, wanting to come out."
In Edsey's case, there's also a little writer, photographer, editor, publisher, and distributor. A graphic artist by training, she has just written and published The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland, a glossy, multicolored, soft-cover book that tells the story behind the best Christmas displays in Cook, Lake, Du Page, Kane, McHenry, and Will counties. All told, there are 243 write-ups, including private homes, office lobbies, gas stations, city halls, and restaurants, as well as maps showing how to get to them. The book sells for $21.95 and can be found at most local bookstores.
"I devoted five years to this project, logging over 10,000 miles on my car," says Edsey. "To finance it I had to take a second mortgage out on my house, borrow from friends and family, and raise money in creative ways, like going to a Halloween party dressed as a French provincial lamp. I sold the motorcycle I won for best costume and plowed the money into the book."
In many ways the book's a tribute to old-fashioned kitsch and Americana. There is, for instance, the story of William Brown, an 82-year-old retired factory worker in Elgin who spends "three to four weeks zigzagging 75 sets of large and small lights up and down the sides of [his] house, around the rails, over the fence and across the bushes," Edsey writes.
And why has he done this backbreaking work for the last 25 years? "For the fun of it," he told Edsey.
Then there are the residents of East Garfield Park who string strands of colored lights from the balconies of all 36 two-flats on the 3300 block of West Flournoy out to the parkway trees. "It's a magical experience to walk down the street under the sparkling canopy," Edsey writes. "Most of the residents come out each night to enjoy the glow. They are often stopped by passing motorists who ask how they are able to achieve such spirit in a west-side area that has the highest crime rate in the city."
One of the book's biggest sections is on Tinley Park, where over 3,000 homes, nearly 25 percent of the town, participate in the annual decorating contest. Perennial contenders for the top prize are Rick and Cindy Esposito; self-confessed decoration "addicts," they light their house with 24 candy canes, dozens of toy soldiers, 90 figurines, and nearly 4,000 lights. "I enjoy the lights, the colors and the fantasy of it all," Rick Esposito explained to Edsey.
Edsey decided to write the book in 1988. "I had a roommate from Spain who was really homesick, so to cheer her up I took her around to see the lights," says Edsey. "We were driving around trying to find the great houses in Lincolnwood, and I saw all these other people in their cars doing the same thing. I thought: We need a guide to the best Christmas displays. Why not a book?"
From there it became an obsession. "The most difficult task was tracking down the great displays," she says. "At first I just drove up and down the streets at Christmastime, looking for the glow. It's a miracle I didn't get into a car accident."
Within a year she had located 50 homes. "I sent letters to the home owners asking if they'd agree to be featured in the book," says Edsey. "Thirty-three said yes, which is a pretty good response, so I knew I was on to something."
After that she called police, firefighters, city halls, libraries, aldermen--anyone who might know the best displays around. "If I found a good home I'd ask the owner, 'Do you know anyone else who does this?'" she says. "The list grew and grew. Each person had a story to tell. I was interviewing the Velasquez family about the elaborate light displays on their brick house in Park Ridge, and they said, 'Did you know that Hillary Rodham Clinton used to live here?' I didn't, but it's in the book."
During her travels she discovered some intriguing distinctions between those who do and do not decorate their homes. Residents of many of the older, wealthier North Shore suburbs disdainfully view outside decorations as tacky indications of a less genteel breed. It's in middle-class suburbs such as Niles, Elmwood Park, and Carol Stream that the houses glow.
"The big boom in the displays was in the years following World War II, when there was mass production of lights that made them affordable," says Edsey. "That's why people associate them with the 50s and early 60s."
Perhaps the most spectacular display was once on the streets of Dunning, a working-class neighborhood near Belmont and Harlem on the city's far northwest side. Each year Dunning residents decorated whole blocks around incredibly elaborate and fanciful themes.
"They called it Candy Cane Lane. Every house on every street would get involved--it was really quite a feat of planning," says Edsey. "There was Vigil Lane, trimmed with ten-foot candlesticks, and Reindeer Lane and Poinsettia Lane and Santa Claus Lane with Santas waving from every chimney. And of course a lane for candy canes. The tradition ended with the energy crisis of 1973."
Some of the people featured in Edsey's book cite Candy Cane Lane as their inspiration. "My parents used to take me up there when I was a kid," says Wayne Basica, who lives in West Rogers Park. "My family didn't have a home--we lived in the projects over at Diversey and Clybourn--and I used to tell myself, 'When I get a house I'm going to decorate it like Candy Cane Lane.'"
For the last 18 years Basica has strung his bungalow with lights, Santas, and reindeer; a manger scene and choirs fill his front yard.
"There was a time in the 70s when you couldn't find these kinds of displays," Basica says. "Nobody was selling them--there was no market. I bought mine at antique stores or from people who were too old to string their houses anymore. Now, as the boomers get kids, all the stores sell this stuff. It all comes around."
In addition to homes, Edsey's book features businesses, such as the Majestic Shell gas station at 3181 N. Milwaukee that's run by the Sfondeles brothers, Jim and George. "Shell runs a contest for the best decorations in the area, and we've won it three years in a row," says George Sfondeles. "We'll trim the pumps with garlands, put up a big Santa Claus and a tree. First prize is a trip somewhere nice. One year I went to Lake Tahoe. To tell you the truth, the vacation probably costs less than the money we spend on decorations. But we'll do it again. The customers like it. And I have to admit, we like winning the prize. It's sort of like the Bulls--once you get used to winning you don't want to stop."
Another fanciful display is the interior decoration at Fluky's hot dog restaurant at 6821 N. Western; it's one of the few displays to feature a Hanukkah theme, in this case a praying rabbi and a menorah. "I do it because the people love it," says Jack Drexler, Fluky's owner. "It's what they remember from their childhood. Everyone loves kid stuff; no one wants to get old."
Perhaps the most elaborate decoration in Chicago is the display at 2656 W. Logan Blvd. The mansion there is owned by Frank Lopez, a flamboyant man with the air of an impresario.
Lopez, who made his fortune with the Chicago Wire Design Company, decorates his home each year with glittering wreaths, ribbons, reindeer, Santas, doves, and bells of silver, white, green, and red. As an added touch for this season, he's ringed the gutters with the flags of 185 countries.
"When I was young I didn't have the money to do these things," he says. "When I was young I didn't have the money to buy any toys. Now I can afford to play with all the toys I want. I'm a collector. I collect toy elephants. I have hundreds of elephants. The elephant is very strong and very smart. I like it when the elephant's trunk is raised. When a trunk is down the elephant looks very sad. If you notice, all of my elephants, their trunks are raised.
"But most of all, I [decorate my house] because I enjoy it, because these decorations brighten me up. My neighbors love it. They come by in their cars and get out and take pictures of my house. And then I know I've come a long way."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.