Power couple: Schoonovers make the holidays brighter in Mahomet

MAHOMET — A mother and her son stood side by side in front of Mahomet's Christmas display along Timberview Drive, taking in the wonder of it all — a twinkling Ferris wheel, a row of trees coated in colored holiday lights and Alvin and the Chipmunks leading all who passed by in Christmas cheer.

Meet George and Dixie Schoonover, the legends of it all.

Lovingly referred to as the Griswold's house, the Schoonovers have become a household name in Mahomet. Even a sign points motorists to the "Griswolds of Mahomet" at the corner of Timberview Drive and West State Street.

"Bill Taylor (a neighbor) made that sign about 20-plus years ago," Dixie Schoonover said. "It was all kind of like a joke, but it began to be the name."

The name stuck.

"We even get some of our mail (addressed) that way," George Schoonover joked.

It all began with Dixie Schoonover wanting to add a small touch of holiday spirit.

"It started with me wanting some lights on the bushes," she said. "That's it. I didn't think that was much."

Forty years later and the Schoonovers' now top more than 100,000 lights.

And yes, it all comes with a price tag of about $500 in utility bills a month.

"But that was significantly cut down when we went to LEDs," Dixie Schoonover added.

The holiday display went from a few holiday light strands to Clark Griswold style with the help of a neighbor, Barney Barnhart.

"He's deceased now but he kind of got into it with us," Dixie Schoonover said.

"The first thing he made for us was a wooden train. That was out here for years, and now we have a lighted train. He built a sleigh, he built a gingerbread house and that was a tradition and that's kind of how it grew."

"It's been George's passion ever since," she added.

Even the idea to add holiday music began with Barnhart.

"Barney (Barnhart) started it across the street," George Schoonover said. "He made a tape of the music from '(National Lampoon's) Christmas Vacation' and played it when we went outside to turn the lights on."

Their favorite holiday decor?

"I love the candy cane Ferris wheel," Dixie Schoonover said. "George likes the skaters."

"But my most favorite is in the backyard with just the reindeer and the lights," she added. "It's peaceful."

A new decoration makes its way into the grand display every two years.

This year's addition?

"The little boy (Flick) whose tongue got stuck on the pole in 'A Christmas Story,'" Dixie Schoonover added.

Speaking of decor, it's all handmade and hand-painted.

"Next year we have to redo a lot of them," Dixie Schoonover said, "because they look OK from the street, but up close they need redone."

Understandable with more than 40 years of enjoyment.

But this isn't your standard decking of the halls. Such a grand holiday display requires nearly two months of preparations.

"He (George Schoonover) starts in October, and it starts with all of the trees because all of the back, the side and the bushes are all done," Dixie Schoonover said.

This year was a bit different. The holiday hoopla began the week before Thanksgiving.

"People come and help us get all of the yard stuff from our storage area and get it delivered to the house and they help place it and some hold it while drills are being used and all kinds of stuff," Dixie Schoonover explained.

The Schoonovers' biggest helpers are son Lucas Schoonover and friend Neil Bateman, who "dedicate every year to helping," Dixie Schoonover said.

"The first Sunday in December we turn the lights on at night and we have our family and Neil over here," Dixie Schoonover said. "Everyone puts on a Santa hat, everybody has a necklace with lights and we go out in the street and George flips the lights and turns the music on, and then we come in and we have food and make sure everything's going OK."

And all of that holiday magic wouldn't happen without them.

"There's been seasons where George's health wasn't as good and Neil and Lucas did most of it," Dixie Schoonover said. "We're so grateful for that help. I don't think we could get it done (otherwise)."

The spectacle is a beloved community staple. So much so, the Schoonovers know just how much it means to the community and in turn, just how much the community means to them.

"It's a tradition," Dixie Schoonover said.

"We would have to give a two-year notice if we were going to stop," she joked.

"But I also know if we said we need 52 people on this day to come help, we would have 102 people; I know that," she added.

Tradition indeed. People gather not just from East Central Illinois, but from all over the world.

"We have had people from Norway, Japan, England, Russia," Dixie Schoonover said.

"We've even had buses stop," she added.

"One time at 2 in the morning, the doorbell rang and they happened to have a caravan of people who were going to be leaving the next day and wondered if we'd turn the lights on and we did."

The Schoonovers' "gift to the community" is one that holds deep tradition — spanning three generations.

"Our granddaughter's teacher said she grew up with this and she used to come home from college and bring her friends," Dixie Schoonover said.

"That made us feel old," she added while laughing.

"I think as long as we are in (good) health and we continue to have help, we'll do it."

The Schoonovers' holiday lights and music display runs from the first Sunday in December through New Year's Eve.

The whole display kicks on at 5 p.m. every day, and the music ends at 9 p.m., while the lights shut off at 10.

"And then nights when I fall asleep in the chair they go off at about 11," George Schoonover joked.

On Christmas Eve, the lights and music play until midnight, and Christmas Day through New Year's Eve, it's just the lights.

If you're unsure how to get to the Griswolds of Mahomet, head toward Mahomet-Seymour High School on West State Street, keep on West State Street for about a half-mile, and once you've past the high school, then hang a left onto Timberview Drive. On your right you'll find the house with all of that glimmer.

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