By Lacey Sikora
The winter solstice might be the longest – read darkest -- day of the year, but December holidays have one thing going for them in Oak Park and River Forest.
Homeowners tend to celebrate the holidays and fight the darkness by decking the exterior of their homes with lights. Throughout the villages, certain houses and certain blocks make for prime holiday light viewing experiences in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Some homeowners love the creative satisfaction of planning and executing their lighting schemes themselves, and others prefer to leave the lighting to the professionals, but either way, everyone in the neighborhood gets to enjoy the results.
Oak Park homeowner Dianne Risch says it's her family tradition to have hot chocolate and drive around Oak Park and River Forest to look at Christmas lights every holiday season.
After years of decorating her house in the 400 block of Kenilworth Avenue herself, she says she was inspired by some of the lights on homes in River Forest, and thought how nice it would be not to have to do all the work herself.
"Our house is so tall, even if we stand on our porch roof, we can't reach everything ourselves," she said.
She searched online for companies who would install lights and holiday décor, which led her to , and talked to owner Kelly Fitzsimmons who was ready to help her come up with decorating ideas.
"She asked me to email her a picture of the house as I decorated it last year, and she sent me a mock-up of how she would decorate it," Risch said.
Fitzsimmons, a former interior decorator and trained photographer, has an eye for design and quickly came up with a plan that would complement the Risch family's historic Oak Park home. Lighted garlands wrap the front porch and wreaths and garland pop against the red exterior of the home.
The company also provides seasonal service to the decorations they install, doing regular drive-bys of their clients' homes to ensure that lights aren't burnt out or that bows haven't fallen off wreaths.
When the holidays are over, the business removes the lights and the faux greenery and returns everything to storage, leaving the house just as they found it.
The entire set up took a crew of three or four workers over a day to install.
"This is my first year hiring someone to do this, and I'll never do it myself again," Risch said.
A block away from Risch on Forest Avenue, Alison Meyer also likes to deck the porch of her Oak Park Victorian, but the trained artist loves to do the decorating herself.
In the past, she has stocked up on enough fresh garland for the entire width of her wraparound porch, but she notes that the fresh garland was expensive, and at the end of the holidays, it would fill an entire trash can.
Growing up in California, Meyer says her family experimented with creating icicle-like lights from standard strands of lighting, before such custom lighting solutions existed, and this year, she put her creativity to the test and invested in large snowflakes to hang from her porch and accented them with dripping light strands.
Her hope was to save time and effort in decorating, but she says the first year was a bit of wash. She spent hours installing hooks to hang the snowflakes from and invested in purchasing the snowflakes, light strands and white extension cords.
"It took about five hours to set it up, mostly because it was the first time I've done this," Meyer said. "Next year, it will be faster."
Meyer also notes that after the initial investment, the snowflakes will be cheaper in the long run and cut down on trash and storage needs.
"I've always wondered where people store this stuff," she said. "If I used artificial garland, it would take up so much room. The snowflakes fold up and will all go in one storage bin."
Over her years in Oak Park, Meyer has enjoyed attending the Infant Welfare Society Holiday Housewalk, and says she draws inspiration from seeing other's home decorating ideas. She says that she tends to let her creativity take over when coming up with her holiday décor schemes.
"I have an idea before I start doing something, but it kind of evolves as I do it," Meyer said. "I like to decorate for Christmas, and every time I do something, if it looks good, it inspires me to do more. It's addictive."
For her family of five, driving around to look at Christmas lights is a family tradition, and she notes that it creates a great feeling to see so many houses all lit up.
"Every year, we drive by this house on Franklin in River Forest." Meyer said. "We don't know these people, but it's become a part of our Christmas tradition. The decorating they do makes other people happy. It's so dark in the winter, and it seems to get dark around four, but the lights make everything so happy. It's something I hope people will continue to do."
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