It's seven o'clock and sleeting when we line up in front of the man-size candy canes outside Cornelia's restaurant, just off Halsted, and pile into the coach for Mary Edsey's "Holiday Lights Tour." Soon the giant windshield wipers are swishing and the bus is heading west on Addison, past two-flats decked in icicle lights and sidewalks flanked by small, glowing snowmen. Deep in our cushy seats, the 30 tourists from Flint and I take little notice. We're on our way to see the really good stuff.
Edsey, the author of The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland, has been running holiday bus tours since 1997. Tonight she has a bad cold, but she gamely dons a Santa hat and launches into a history of Christmas decorating, beginning with the Roman Empire, when houses were trimmed in greenery for the New Year, then leaping to 1882 when Thomas Edison gave a friend 80 little red, white, and blue lights. A few years later General Electric started mass-producing the little bulbs, each of which had to be wired separately, and in 1903 the Ever-Ready company began selling "festoons"--the first bulbs strung on wires.
On Christmas eve 1913, Mayor Carter Harrison lit Chicago's first city tree--a majestic specimen 85 feet tall and bedecked with 650 lights. One hundred thousand people showed up for the illumination. But it wasn't until after World War II that outdoor lighting became popular with the middle class. Many Chicagoans who decorate today were inspired by the Candy Cane Lane on the city's northwest side, where block-by-block coordination in the 1950s produced a homegrown wonderland. By the 1960s, when the Polk Brothers store began giving away a five-foot three-inch "Jolly Polk Santa" with every refrigerator and washing machine--250,000 over four years--outdoor decorating had caught on.
Our first stop, says Edsey, is the best-decorated house in all of Chicagoland--the Logan Square home of Frank Lopez, who built his small wire picture frame business into Chicago Wire Design Company, which now manufactures decorations like those on his flag-topped Victorian mansion. The side street here is too snowy for our bus to navigate and no one elects to get off in the sleet; peering across the parkway we can just make out the castle of lights atop his garage and the glowing reindeer heads on his fence posts. Then we're off again, passing stalled cars under mercury vapor lights on our way to Antonio Samiotakis's compact brick bungalow near O'Hare.
Samiotakis's front yard is an eye-popping, handmade red-and-white fantasy. As we're trying to sort it out--a steam engine with wheels turning, a statue rising like Venus from a circle of giant flowers--Samiotakis springs from his front door and onto the bus. "Merry Christmas," he says, taking the microphone from Edsey to tell us how putting up 7,300 light clips every year reminds him of when he was a six-year-old orphan wandering the streets of Athens at Christmas, lost and then rescued. "Your whole life depends on two columns," he concludes. "Whatever memory you have and whatever you love." The passengers sing a response that starts at the back of the bus and rolls spontaneously forward: "We wish you a merry Christmas / We wish you a merry Christmas / We wish you a merry Christmas / And a happy New Year!"
In the very strange land of Rosemont, where, says Edsey, "nearly everyone's related" and nearly every tree has lights, John and Diane Frank hop on the bus with homemade banana bread. We sample, sing our thanks, and glide on--past a condominium with 39 blazing balconies and one daring, dark abstainer; past the Leaning Tower of Niles, a confection in layers of green and red; past the wreath-crowned gaslights of Park Ridge. The ladies from Flint pass around little plastic cups of vodka slush from a tray and the Christmas spirit rises. In Lincolnwood we stop for one home that's had the same animated elves for 37 years and for another with two stuffed real reindeer and a tree that starts in the living room and pokes out of the roof, then pull up in front of Pat Domanik's sprawling white ranch house. Edsey rings the doorbell and Domanik climbs onto the bus. She has bad news (baby Jesus was stolen from her creche) and good news (a replacement was found at Toys "R" Us). Then she recites the poem she's hung every year in front of her outdoor display, "To believe in Christmas is to believe in love and hope / To believe in Christmas is to cradle a child and to wish on a star...." Someone hands her a cup of slush and she waves as we pull away. We pause for an animated tree house and a huge rooftop manger scene, then roll onto the expressway, singing out the answers to Edsey's fill-in-the-blanks Christmas music quiz: oh tidings of comfort and joy.
Mary Edsey's book can be purchased at local bookstores or from her Web site at www.christmashouses.com. She'll host a tour Wednesday, December 27, from 5:30 to 10:15 PM, which starts with dinner at Melrose Park's Homestead Restaurant, 8305 W. North, and includes displays in Bolingbrook, Lisle, and Naperville. It's $49; call 773-404-9402 for reservations.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.