MAHOMET — Growing up, Lucas Schoonover always saw his father’s display of Christmas lights as a spectacle, with blinking, multicolored bulbs creating a disco-like atmosphere through the window of his bedroom.
The tradition of helping string up 100,000 lights shortly after Thanksgiving each year, though, was a chore.
His dad, George, is known as the Clark Griswold of Mahomet, because for the last 42 years he’s put on the best display of Christmas lights in town. Lucas sees himself as another character from “Christmas Vacation.”
“I’m a grown-up Rusty from the movie,” he said. “It’s kind of a pain in my rear. It’s my dad, I’ve got to help him do lights every year, and I’m helping him put them up on the trees. So it kind of becomes a pain from the son’s perspective.”
But then, he’d hear the stories about people coming from far away, sometimes even from other countries, to see the lights. He’d see the buses coming in from retirement homes and the families who made a tradition of gazing upon his father’s spectacle of flashing lights and displays that include Alvin and the Chipmunks and a grandmother being chased by Santa’s reindeer, which are pulling a monster truck.
“We’ve got probably more pressure to get up these lights than to run our family Schoonover Sewer business, it feels like, because of all of the people it affects,” Lucas said. “So that’s the cool thing about it, is you learn how important it is.”
None of those stories, though, quite matched the meaning of the Montiel family’s connection to Mahomet’s “Griswold House.”
Four years ago, Tiara and Alberto Montiel faced an extended hospital stay shortly after the birth of their first child, Addiana, when they began hatching plans for holiday traditions. Each year at Christmas, they decided, they’d give their children two presents on Christmas Eve — one would be pajamas, the other hot cocoa. Then, they’d go see all of the best and brightest Christmas lights in the area, just like Tiara did with her family when she was a kid.
And every year, Schoonover’s home was their most essential stop.
“We always, always go to the Griswold house,” Tiara said. “No matter where else we go, we always go there every year.”
Throughout their four-year tradition, the Montiels never met George or his family. Until last week.
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Throughout her life, Addiana has lit up rooms, her mother said. At every restaurant Addiana steps into, she walks around to various tables and greets every single person before sitting down.
She’s also faced a wide array of health problems. As a newborn, she was forced to stay in the hospital in Peoria while Tiara recovered from a birth that nearly killed her and Alberto worked to make ends meet with four jobs back in Mahomet. Last year, she had open heart surgery, which her parents hoped would put an end to her issues.
This Nov. 5, though, she’s having brain surgery, which they hope will relieve the sleep apnea that forces her to use wear a tracheostomy tube and relieve her chronic back and neck issues, as well as prevent seizures, and improve her balance, coordination and motor skills.
The surgery and recovery will mean Addiana can’t partake in normal holiday traditions with her parents and 1-year-old brother.
When he found out about the surgery, Cornbelt fire Chief John Koller quickly looked to accommodate the Montiels. Koller and members of his department had grown to know the family. To help her become comfortable with emergency personnel, firefighters and EMTs came to her birthday party last month.
So Koller called Lucas Schoonover and asked if the Schoonovers might help give Addiana an early Christmas and have the lights ready about a month early, before her surgery date. People from the town are also putting together a Christmas party for her this weekend.
“I keep getting emotional every time I talk about it,” Tiara said while holding back tears, “but it’s amazing to me that there are so many people who are so willing to help out in any way that they can in this town.”
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So on Oct. 23, George and Lucas Schoonover were out in their yard stringing and setting up lights with an extra sense of purpose. On Oct. 26, members of the Cornbelt Fire Department came out to help.
After it’s all done, George will take the jumble of cords — his closest resemblance to “Christmas Vacation,” Lucas said — and connect it to the special electrical box he set up specifically for the display. He’ll also set up a donation box that will go toward the Montiels’ expenses.
And on Nov. 2, hot chocolate, fresh pajamas and Christmas lights will come early for the Montiels, who will meet the Griswolds of Mahomet for the first time.
“That’s the cool thing about this,” Lucas said. “There are a lot of people that don’t know her that are all working to make her happy as much as we can.”