Monday, December 3, 2012

See the lights

No place like decorated homes for the holidays

By Vickie Jurkowski

       If parental warnings of “Don’t use the hair dryer while your brother’s running the microwave!” were a normal part of your childhood, you know all about the interior hazards of oodles of outdoor lights during the holidays.
       Two things may have happened since: You got enough of the lights and ensuing fiascos as a kid and now leave the extreme decorating to others; or you caught the family bug for the Christmas crazies and spend October and November lining the perimeter with soldiers and candy canes, dotting the rooftop, gutters and trees with lights, and filling the yard with a party of penguins, snowmen, elves, Santa, his sleigh and nine reindeer to rival the North Pole.
       Whether you fall into category A or B, looking at the lights and other holiday décor likely is an undeniable treat for you and your family year after year.
       Those who take on the task of keeping the tradition alive say LED lights have made their “fun hobby” more simple and economical. Technology enabling displays to be synchronized to music and showcased on YouTube has brought the tradition a long way, too.
       But for many, the classics are still keepers.
       Nostalgic plastic blow molds – those hollow snowmen, Santas, elves and penguins you see on folks’ front lawns – and handmade designs are popular as ever this holiday season.
       “I’d say I have one of everything,” said Rick Tarulis, whose home at 827 Morven Court in Naperville has been featured on HGTV and the Naperville Trolley Holiday Lights Tour since it started 17 years ago. “If I see a new Santa or elf or candy cane, I buy it.”
Original ideas shine at the Tarulis residence (top and above) in Naperville. Rick Tarulis designed the 17-foot steel snowman on side of house on a piece of notebook paper and had it fabricated at a welding shop. He sawed, drilled and painted pegboard and incorporated drop-ceiling light covers to make stockings and candy canes for the front of the house, located at 827 Morven Court.          (Photo courtesy Rick Tarulis)
       Plastic Santas, elves and candy canes are joined on his lawn by Mickey, Minnie and Snoopy.
“The nostalgic blow molds are still one of our most popular items,” said Rick Septoski, marketing manager for Tinley Park-based retailer American Sale, where the plastic figures range from $14 to $200.
An animatronic plastic blow-mold Santa in a handmade chimney has been the centerpiece of Bill Christoffel’s display for 25 years, from Des Plaines to his current residence at 1622 Clarence Ave. in Arlington Heights.
       “Santa comes out of the chimney whenever a car goes by and music comes on,” said Christoffel, who is also slowly converting some 6,000 lights to LEDs. He used his electrical engineering skills to create a chain-driven assembly and also hid a motion sensor and FM radio transmitter inside the chimney.
       The Pop-Up Santa action triggers a nearby blow-mold snowman to spin on its saucer sled. Tarulis, an attorney and grandfather, also incorporates homespun ingenuity into his holiday décor. He designed the 17-foot steel snowman on the side of his house on a piece of notebook paper and had it fabricated at a welding shop. He sawed, drilled and painted pegboard and incorporated drop ceiling light covers to make four-foot stockings and candy canes for the front of the house.
       LED lights have improved his 30-year decorating tradition.
       “About four years ago I maxed out all the power” and an electrician recommended a new meter, subpanels, etc.,” Tarulis said. “Instead I switched to all LED. They use one-tenth of the power and last forever. It’s very economical.”
       Modern also meets nostalgic and handmade at the Frohn residence in Bolingbrook.
The house itself is almost invisible amid 52,000 lights and 20 plastic soldiers outlining the corner property at 1443 W. Briarcliff Road.
       Jack Frohn, a letter carrier, and his wife Laura Frohn, a former letter carrier now in management, add plenty of homespun ideas to the store-bought décor. They designed their own flashing 14-inch snowflakes, which used to be sold at grocery and hardware stores, and 110 snowflakes are on display from the rooftop down.

 The Frohn residence at 1443 W. Briarcliff Road in Bolingbrook features 52,000 lights, 100 flashing snowflakes, 20 blow-mold soldiers, 30 ball ornaments made from Solo cups and filled with 100 lights, four large inflatables, a wooden sleigh and reindeer, candy cane tree, a train and an airplane. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Frohn)

       The couple modified a friend’s idea for ball ornaments made from Solo cups and filled with 100 lights, and gave him some snowflakes in exchange.
       “It’s quite a task” to make 30-plus ball ornaments, Jack Frohn said, “and each year our trees get bigger so we have to make more and add more lights.”
       Family members and friends also have contributed handmade décor. Hanging in trees and on the North Pole are elves created by the Frohns’ nephew, Garret Popek, who also made a video of the display ( His late father Bart Popek made a wooden sleigh and reindeer for the Frohns’ front lawn.
     Neighbor Peggy McMillan did the elves’ hair and clothed them thanks to Goodwill.
     The handmade décor has another way of bringing people together. Laura Frohn has a tradition of hiding small elves in the snowflakes for kids to find.
     The couple handed out 1,600 candy canes to onlookers last year. Santa even makes an appearance at the Frohn residence, with this year’s visit set for 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 8.
       “It’s … um … big,” Jack Frohn said about their holiday display, which Annette Wehrli of Naperville Trolley & Tours Ltd. ( calls “the largest of them all.”
       While it’s a given that the Frohn and Tarulis homes will be featured on the tours, Wehrli said residents call her to request being on the tour and don’t always make the cut, even with four trolleys operating every single night in December.

 Neighbor Peggy McMillan (from left), Laura Frohn and Frohn’s nephew Garret Popek ready the elves, which he created and McMillan dressed with clothes from Goodwill. Many residents incorporate décor into an annual tradition, from trimming the tree to touring the lights. Frohn has a tradition of hiding small elves in the snowflakes for kids to find. (Photo Courtesy of Jack Frohn)

       “More and more people are decorating and synchronizing displays to music and LED lights,” said Wehrli, also known as the Trolley Chick. “Now there are enough homes that we do a north tour and a south tour. Going around looking at lights brings friends and family together.”
       “We used to do it for them,” Jack Frohn said of decorating for the couple’s three children, who have grown up and moved away. “Now it’s a tradition for the trolleys and literally thousands of people who come by and we get to meet them. There’s a group of au pairs from all over the world who come and it’s amazing to see the shock on their faces as they take pictures and send them instantly to their (native) homes.”

What’s inside?
       For those of us content to just spruce up the inside of our homes, here are some of the hot items this season.
       At American Sale, big sellers include a revolving tree stand and the Carrington Color Changing Tree, which is pre-lit and can be set to clear lights, multi-color or both.
“It gives the customer flexibility year after year,” Septoski said.
       For indoors and out, LED battery-operated wreaths, garland and candles “are becoming popular because of the brightness of the LED, the low energy of LED, which makes the batteries last all season, and the flexibility to put them anywhere in your house or outside your house,” he said. “They also have convenient timers that can help them light only when you want them lit.”
Beyond the trees and LEDs, mirrors and floral mesh wrap are popular products at Michaels, the nation’s largest arts and crafts retailer.
       “Floral mesh wrap is a new product that has a huge impact on decorating,” said Michaels Creative Expert Jo Pearson. “It can easily transform a Christmas tree or a wreath and Michaels carries a wide variety of colors.
       “Mirrored items have also become very popular, which is a theme throughout our Crystal Elegance holiday line,” she said. “Michaels even has a mirrored glass molding in our custom framing department which is great for adding holiday sparkle to family photos or prints.”
Holiday Decorating: A Family Tradition
       Whether you have a family of two or 20, decorating the house for the holidays can be a family affair, year after year.
     Here are a few suggestions for starting your own traditions.

Take a tour! Gather the family for a tour of decorated homes to start a new tradition or inspire your own décor. Pack the minivan or leave the driving to a professional so you can focus on the sights.

       For starters, call your local village or city hall for possible tours. In Darien, for example, the city provides free bus tours of winning displays. Tours will be Dec. 20 and 26, with reservations on a first come, first serve basis. Call (630) 852-5000 for other details.
     Elsewhere, tours are by trolleys for hire. Naperville Trolley & Tours Ltd. offers public and private trolley tours; call (630) 420-2223 or visit For double-decker trolley tours of the lights in downtown Chicago, visit or call (773) 648-5000.

       Don’t feel like leaving the comfort of home? Take a virtual tour of homes throughout Illinois (counties including Cook, DuPage, Grundy, Iroquois, Kane, Kankakee, Lake, McHenry, Will and Winnebago) by visiting
      Climb a tree! Seriously, do kids even know how to climb a tree these days? Motivate the kids to take a break from technology and get outside by seeing who can create the most unusual lighting design amid the branches.
     Get crafty! Store-bought decor looks magical, but homemade stuff might mean so much more. Spend an afternoon creating holiday décor - and memories - with the kids. Make it up on your own, take a class, buy a project kit or watch a video or in-store demo.

       “Michaels has lots of free and low-cost holiday events throughout the month of December,” said Michaels Creative Expert Jo Pearson. Check for local schedules.
       “One holiday tradition that I love sharing with my family is making new ornaments every year and looking back on what the kids create each year,” she said. “Whether it’s using plastic ornaments to decorate with stickers or wooden ornaments that you can easily paint, has tons of different do-it-yourself ornament ideas.”
       Endless DIY projects can be jumpstarted with a quick Internet search.
Felt, ribbon and glue are all about that’s needed to make this Hanukkah banner:
For pointers on decorating a room for Karamu, the Kwanzaa feast, visit:
     Throw a party! Invite family, friends and neighbors to help decorate your tree and return the favor. Make it a daylong affair or progressive dinner. Gift one another with memorable ornaments. Make popcorn and show kids how to string it for garland.
     Pick a theme! If turning tree-trimming into a big party sounds daunting, keep it simple with your own immediate family and decorate the tree together. Get the kids involved by choosing a theme for the tree each year. Purple and silver this year? Why not?! Birds and big feathers next year? Sure!

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