MACON, Ill. — And darkness was upon the face of the prairie, about two miles north of Macon.
And the Christmas spirit of Bob and Mickey Collier moved upon the face of the darkness and said "Let there be light," and there was a whole bunch of light. And the Colliers saw the light, that it was good, and they've been busy adding to its annual festive glow ever since.
The current bulb count, LED and regular, stands at about 20,000, give or take. You may never have met the Colliers, but you have probably turned your eyes to their holiday lights display if you drive U.S. 51 between Macon and Elwin. Just glance to the right while heading south, and it will be hard to look away again as their country home, set on one incandescent acre, blazes out of the surrounding blackness in a multicolored ode to joy.
A prominent star, 20 feet tall, 20 feet wide, faces the highway and fronts a riot of illuminated decorations with lights that climb the house and bedeck trees, fences and just about anything else.
"Whatever doesn't move, we put lights on it," explains Bob Collier, 85, outlining his simple and direct Christmas lighting plan. "We had a guy call us a little while ago who had driven by, and he said he just wanted to say how pretty the lights are," adds Mickey Collier, 81. "We get a lot of people calling who say things like that."
Those who confine their admiration to passing by on U.S. 51 are only getting half the story, however. If they hang a right on the appropriately named Gabriel Road and then another right on Woodcock and head north to the Collier's tidy home, amazed onlookers will discover a lighted cornucopia of seasonal tributes bedazzling the hidden west side, too. Crank down the car windows and those visitors will also hear recorded Yuletide carols being sung by choir, with some lighting affects synced in time to the music.
And don't miss the detailed birth of Christ scene lit by another star and surrounded by carefully arranged hay bales. The blocks of straw help with the away-in-a-manger look, but they also serve a practical purpose as a protective barrier: Without the hay, according to the Colliers' grandson, Robbie Ray, there's a good chance the Holy Family could re-create the flight into Egypt propelled by the ever-howling prairie winds.
Ray, 34, and his 14-year-old son, Dean Holt, are keen members of the family lighting team who labor together to ignite the season of goodwill toward men.
It's a four-generation affair, too, as the festive squad also includes the Colliers' youngest son Randy, 53, in a tradition of outdoor electric exuberance that dates back to 1975.
The lighting displays they weave together out of creativity and public-spirited generosity have grown ever more elaborate during the past 37 years and, when conditions are right, can be seen over vast distances.
"One year, we had a tree with almost 2,000 lights on it," said Ray. "It was so bright, you could see it from 48 (Illinois 48), about five miles away. When we get low cloud on an overcast day, you see the house lights reflecting off it like a town in the distance. I used to love to see that effect when I was growing up."
Dean said he gets a little glow of pride when he overhears people, such as school bus drivers, describing this house they've seen off of U.S. 51 with lots of beautiful lights.
"I am like, 'That's cool, and I helped put them up,' he says. I like being able to say that."
The cost of turning on a tribute to the God made flesh 20 centuries ago used to punch up the Collier winter electric bills by an unholy amount, but they say the price of glory has faded considerably with the arrival of cooler burning LEDs. Not that the couple ever spends much time reading the fine print of their utility company correspondence. To them, the family Christmas lighting extravaganza is a gift offered to friends and strangers alike and always is well worth it, whatever the cost.
"Christmas comes but once a year," Bob Collier says. "And we enjoy it."
Information from: Herald & Review, http://www.herald-review.com