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Since prehistoric times, mankind has welcomed the return of the sun to the northern hemisphere with various customs. Druids ceremoniously pruned mistletoe branches with a golden sickle and handed them out as good luck tokens. Pre-Christian Germanic people burned Yule logs. Pre-Islamic Iran (Persia) held a Yalda celebration by burning fires all night.

Here in Forest Park, we fight back the bleak mid-winter with plastic Santas and penguins, gigantic inflatable snow globes with turning carousel horses, and enough wattage to hopefully entice the sun north of the equator.

Some homes are more modest in their approach to holiday decorating; a garage on a side street sports one lone string of red lights, and a house on Circle Avenue has a simple candle holder with the seven candles of Kwanzaa glowing in the window. But to really beat back the night, visit the Forest Park homes that go above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to decorating.

For the past 13 years, the D’Souza family at 906 Dunlop Ave. has festooned their yard with plastic figures. There’s a Nativity, a snowman, a camel, an elf, reindeer, deer, a choir, two Dickensian carolers, two Santas, two chapels, two donkeys, four lambs, four streetlights, four soldiers, six wise men, six arches, seven bears, eight candles, nine candy canes, and 10 angels.

“My husband goes crazy,” Terry D’Souza said of husband Austin. “He goes out rain or shine the day after Thanksgiving.”

People have stopped by the home over the years, asking if they can take their Christmas photos on the lawn. D’Souza said they like to add something new, but right now they are just about out of room.

Also getting tight on space is the display at 1009 Circle Ave. New this year is the very large inflatable snow globe. Inside the globe, Mickey and Minnie Mouse carol as the snow gently falls around them.

“I can combine my love of Christmas and Mickey Mouse,” homeowner Jamie Alonzo said. “It’s a family tradition. We’ve been doing it for about 30 years. My mom decorated, and my birthday’s in December. I just love it.”

Lights begin going up the week after Halloween at the Alonzo home and stay up until the second week in January. The inside of the house is also elaborately decorated with 11 trees and so many strings of Christmas lights that the Alonzo’s have no need for regular lamps during December.

“I love to add more and more,” Alonzo said. “I’m on a budget plan with ComEd, so I don’t know if the bill is higher in December. I don’t even want to know what the electric bill is.”

The Mendonca family at 7502 Harrison St. has embraced technology when it comes to their extravaganza of cheer. New LED lights, which use less electricity, blaze alongside images projected on the side of the house. Santa and his reindeer fly through the air, while another over-sized Santa continuously pops out of a chimney.

“We buy something new every year,” Jossie Mendonca said. “After Christmas I go for the sales.”

They have been decorating their house for 10 years and in 2004, were awarded first place in the Park District’s Winter Holiday decorating contest.

Since 1963, the residents at 1001 Dunlop Ave. have embraced the unique features left by the previous owner who landscaped with small castles she built out of wire mesh and concrete. “We’ve decorated them at Halloween and Christmas ever since my father uncovered them when we moved in,” Kelly Patera said. “People are always stopping and taking photos.”

The castles, one in the front and two in the back, have always attracted admirers even when not decorated. This year, the small castle in the front of the house is draped with lights and topped with candy canes, making it look like a fantastical package. Deer decked in white lights stand on either side while lit arches span the sidewalk. Each of the 15 panes of the front window on the house showcase dolls and Christmas decorations handed down from her parents.

Of course Forest Park businesses also get into the spirit of the season, decorating their store fronts. Walk by the entrance to Ace Hardware on Madison Street to be serenaded by the Karaoke Buck. Swing by the corner of Circle and Madison streets and you’ll see more than 30 illuminated houses that populate the offices of Reich & Becker Real Estate.

“It takes two to three hours just to bring the boxes up from storage,” Tone Bale, an employee at the office said.

Some decorating traditions have their origins in procrastination. Steve Mohr of Mohr and Sons on Harlem Avenue said the tree and Santa on top of their ready-mix hopper was left there in the 1950s. His grandfather Carl was pestering his father Bud to take the decorations down and he never got around to it, Mohr said. It became a family joke and the decorations have stayed up year-round ever since.

“My dad likes to say, ‘It’s always Christmas at Mohr and Sons,'” Mohr said.

Depending on how the lights hold up, the tree, which is in a special stand, is usually replaced each Christmas.

“My mother, Dolly, decorates it,” Steve Mohr said.

The Santas are also replaced if they become too weathered. In the 1970s, daring thieves stole the oversized Santa from the hopper. The plastic figure was later found by the police in Riverside.

Mohr said they have received many letters over the years asking that they continue the tradition of keeping the decorations up year-round, including one letter from a soldier returning home from Vietnam who wanted to make sure the lights were on when he returned home.

“It’s a landmark,” Mohr said.

Since 2004, the Park District has been acknowledging the efforts of these twinkle-light artists by holding a contest for the home that shows the best curb appeal, creativity, use of theme, place, use of yard and house, and originality. Homes must be registered with the Park District to be considered. This year, the houses were judged on Dec. 21 and the winners received a 2007 pool pass for four family members.

“At this time of year it’s important to light up the world,” Austin D’Souza said. “We need more light.”