The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland

A tour of Chicagoland in all its holiday finery
Ever drive by a fantastically lit up house and ask, "Where do they store all this stuff? How much is their electric bill?"

A new book The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland answers those questions, and author, Chicagoan by Chicagoan Mary Edsey provides a comprehensive and fascinating tour of the finest annual holiday displays in the greater Chicago area. This only guidebook provides maps and directions to the displays and includes stories about the decorators, the best decorated restaurants, a pedestrian tour of downtown Chicago holiday lights, famous displays of the past, decorating tips and over 200 color photos.

In 1995, Edsey self-published the original version of The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland; it sold over 13,000 copies. This latest edition is published by Voyage Press with all new material on decorators and displays. It provides an armchair tour of Chicago's holiday dazzle, from tastefully elegant to spectacular to over-the-top.

Edsey, who does not decorate her own house, is a Chicago native who has enjoyed Christmas sightseeing in and around the Windy City since she was a child. While researching and photographing The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland, Mary logged more than 15,000 miles on her car. She has become a Christmas expert and has hosted holiday bus tours around Chicagoland for over ten years.

You can find The Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland at local bookstores and other stores throughout Chicagoland, online stores, and through the author's website and the publisher's website

Mary's Web site,, also features a list of her upcoming events. Events include slideshows and book signings at:

Gail Borden Library, 270 N. Grove Ave., Elgin at 7pm tonight, November 24
The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago at 2 pm Sunday, November 30
Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State, Chicago at 6:30PM on Wednesday, December 3
"Lake Wonderland Winter Festival," Des Plaines on from 1 to 3 pm on Sunday, December 7. For information, visit

Best Christmas Decorations in Chicagoland: Q&A with author Mary Edsey

What did you discover in researching this book that readers will be excited to learn?

That the people who decorate their houses are an interesting and wonderful lot, as diverse as the decorations, with a common enthusiasm for Christmas. Most are men. Many have trade skills. All have a holiday vision that they somehow manage to pull off no matter how zany.

What is the thing that the media will find most interesting about the book?

The stories about the decorators and my story about compiling them all.

What is different about the photography in the book?

My background is in graphic design. I have done photo direction for numerous catalogs and worked with many photographers. When I did the first book, I asked several of my photographer friends if they would help out. They (which also included some friends who weren't professional photographers but were nice and owned good cameras) were enthusiastic at first, but when the reality of trudging out at night, in the cold, to all ends of the 'burbs during the busy holiday season on a maybe-I'll-pay-you-for-this-someday basis finally set in, I was forced to do 80% of the photography myself. I truly appreciated their 20%, but since I now had the system down to a science and felt I had overtaxed my friends, I did all the photography myself for the second edition, except for usable photos that were sent to me.

I do not own fancy equipment. The photos were all taken with an old film Pentax ME Super and a wide-angle lens. By the end of the project, my tripod was held up with duct tape, and my camera and another I borrowed from my brother were on their last legs. I hope to move into the digital age, but still like the look of film and know how to shoot with it. Because there is only a brief window of time to shoot the photos, for several years I left the house every afternoon by 3:30 pm to beat rush hour and arrive on location by dusk. With a list of houses in the vicinity to look for or photograph, I often stayed out until 1 am and often discovered new houses along the way. I do not own a GPS, so I relied on maps, a compass and a magnifying glass. On occasion, a friend would come along, but the night often proved too grueling for a return trip.

How long has the world of extravagant Christmas decorations been part of the Chicago holiday tradition?

Throughout the years, Chicagoans have enjoyed this yuletide trend, now familiar throughout North America. The city's earnest displays have certainly been influenced by the local plant facilities of NOMA Christmas and Silvestri Corp., two of the world's largest light manufacturers. Polk Bros. appliance and furniture store also had a significant impact on local decorators by offering a 5-foot, 3-inch lighted plastic Santa with every major purchase. Over the course of the four-year promotion, which began in 1962, 250,000 "Jolly Polk Santas" began appearing on lawns all over Chicagoland.

Joint neighborhood efforts were first seen here in the thirties, when the affluent homes of Longwood Drive in the Beverly neighborhood were drawing crowds with their lighted homes and shrubbery. "At that time to see Christmas lights outlining a house was really something," recalls longtime Chicagoan John Ryan. In the late forties the northwest-side neighborhood of Sauganash was a holiday attraction with its numerous lights and homemade decorations.

The themed streets of the Candy Cane Lane neighborhood and the well-lighted suburb of Lincolnwood were popular places to view decorations on the north side in the fifties and sixties. And in Evanston, manger scenes flourished as the Christian Family Christmas Committee sponsored its first "Put Christ Back into Christmas" drive in 1952, awarding an 8-inch bench saw for the best religious display. In downtown Chicago, the Merchandise Mart began to glow with the largest "Merry Christmas" sign in the world in 1941 and Marina Towers, built in 1964, lit up the Loop with its balconies of white lights.

Is this growing trend specific to one group of enthusiasts?

As the stories in the book show, the decorators range in age from youngsters helping their parents to senior citizens still climbing out on the roof. They include families that work together and women who tackle the task alone. However, in most households interviewed, the men decorate the outside of the house and the women the inside. Decorating budgets vary from the frugal use of aluminum foil and the kid's stuffed animals to an annual splurge on commercial animation and computerized systems. Tastes and styles may differ among those who practice this holiday craft, but to all it seems to be a source of creative expression.

What is your personal involvement with the subject?

I don't decorate my own house for Christmas. When I was really busy with the book, some years I never even put up a tree. I grew up in a family of eight kids, so needless to say my parents never decorated the outside either. But we always had a tree and they always wrapped us up every year with our snowsuits over our pajamas to go looking at Christmas decorations. It is a tradition I later continued with my friends after an annual pre-Christmas dinner.

What is your favorite part of the book?

The stories of the decorators. Every person surprised me with something truly their own. You couldn't ask to work with a nicer bunch of people.

Is there anything else you would like to add about the subject or the book?

In response to growing concerns about the environment, the book also includes a section on how to decorate green.

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