20 years later, Columbia residents share Christmas decoration traditions

Tuesday, December 20, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Christmas traditions and decorations have long been part of a collective community experience. As part of the Missourian's Facebook album "CoMo in Retrospect," which highlights photos from our archives as they relate to current events, we followed up with the subjects of three photos of Christmas decorations around town taken in the early '90s. 

Randy and Nanci Johnson, Tom and Michelle McAreavy

McAreavy family's Christmas decorations in 2011. Photo by Alex Wood/Missourian.

Johnson family's Christmas decorations in 1991.
Photo by Beth Dreiling/Missourian archives.

It started in 1985. Randy and Nanci Johnson's daughter was 3 years old, and Nanci Johnson was pregnant with their son. One of the neighbors drew a Christmas-themed scene and gave it to Randy Johnson to cut the design out of plywood with a jigsaw. Then Nanci and the children painted it to become the newest front yard decoration. Over the years they made Santa's Express, Rudolph with an accompanying flashing nose, a gingerbread man with a matching house, carolers, and Nutcrackers and Peanuts characters.

It was Mr. and Mrs. Claus that caught the flash of Beth Dreiling's camera when she was taking photos for the Missourian during the citywide Christmas lights competition in 1991. The Johnsons had won third place. In 1993, they won first place.

A few years later, after the family had moved into their new house and as the children grew up and lost some of their previous enthusiasm, Randy and Nanci didn't bring out the wooden cutouts as much.

"When you have older kids, you carry on the traditions, but the magic isn't the same," Nanci said.

So they gave the wooden cutouts to self-titled "Christmas fanatic" Michelle McAreavy, one of Randy's co-workers at Nowell's grocery store at the time. 

"Anyone who knows me knows I love Christmas," McAreavy said. "Just makes you feel like a kid again."

McAreavy, store manager at Patricia's Foods, regularly takes some of the wooden cutouts to put on display.

McAreavy and her husband, Tom McAreavy, added the cutouts to their holiday traditions, including collecting ornaments — one for each of the 25 years they have been married.

"We keep it pretty simple," Tom McAreavy said. "Every year, the day after Thanksgiving we start putting out our decorations. Doesn't matter what the weather's like." 

Bruce and Jennifer Webb

Webb family's Christmas decorations in 2011. Photo by Alex Wood/Missourian.

Webb family's Christmas decorations in 1991. Photo by Beth Dreiling/Missourian archives.

Christmas music travels from Bruce and Jennifer Webb's living room to the speaker suspended on their front porch, where a small train set revolves around a miniature Goofy and Mickey dressed in Christmas apparel. In the front yard, a dogwood tree is wrapped in 2,000 lights, and the sidewalk is lined with stakes topped with multi-colored lights. 

After 15 hours over three weekends, Bruce, 65, said he was satisfied with the results of the Christmas decorations, just as he had been every year since he and his wife, Jennifer Webb, 63, bought their first house in 1971. Back then, they put one string of lights around the doorway.

By 1991, they had expanded their decorations from the top of the roof to the multiple trees in their front yard. Occasionally, Bruce and Jennifer could get one of their three children to help put up the lights, but "Bruce bore the brunt of the work," Jennifer said.

That year, Webb said he saw a TV ad for a citywide Christmas lights competition, and he entered. The judges came around their neighborhood on a bus and the Webbs ended up as one of the runner-ups.

"We do this as much for ourselves as for anybody," Bruce said. 

These days, Bruce doesn't venture on the roof, and some of the trees they used to light have grown too big for his lights to stretch over. But at night, the Webbs' house stands out among the others on Highlands Parkway.

"It's sad there's not as much lights around the neighborhood as there used to be," Bruce said.

Ed and Barb Downey

Downey family's Christmas decorations in 2011. Photo by Robson Abbott/Missourian.

Downey family's Christmas decorations in 1990. Photo by Kurtis Matthews/Missourian archives.

Ed and Barb Downey moved into their current house in 1995 and found fun ways to continue their Christmas decorating with their two children.

"We spent 15 minutes finding where the lights were" in the new house, Ed Downey said. "There's really no rhyme, no reason to how we put them up. We would just buy lights and throw them up."

In particular, a 10-foot blue spruce in their front yard got a good share of the year's Christmas lights rations. Every year, it would take a couple more strands of lights until the tree size demanded 20 strands of lights, Downey said. To save some money and accommodate the tree's needs, the family went shopping for Christmas lights after the holiday to save for the following year.

"It was the perfect Christmas tree," Downey said. 

The neighbors started coming over to help Downey and his son get enough height on the ladders so the poles could reach to place lights atop the 20-foot tree. That's when they knew things were getting out of hand.

"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'One of us is going to fall off this ladder, and it's not going to be a very good Christmas,'" Ed Downey said. A year later, the tree grew too close to the house and they had to cut it down.

With the Christmas icon gone, the family lost their zeal for outside Christmas decor, Downey said. These days, you'll find a few bushes with lights on them, but the Christmas magic is concentrated inside.

Outside light "wasn't quite on the same level as unwrapping presents," Downey said. "We hopped in the car to see other people's Christmas lights around town."

Do you have any holiday moments to share? You can post a photo on our Facebook page or tweet at @CoMissourian for the "Favorite Holiday Moments in Columbia" album. 

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


frank christian December 20, 2011 | 10:23 a.m.

Did we see the TV report about the younger couple living next door to the older one that decorate every year similarly to those pictured here? The younger folks, unable, or unwilling to compete with their friendly neighbors elaborate displays, had made a neon sign pointing to the neighbor house and exclaiming "DITTO!"

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield December 20, 2011 | 10:57 a.m.

Great story!

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks December 20, 2011 | 11:12 a.m.

That ditto picture always makes me laugh. Its been floating around the email circuit since my years at Northwest Missouri.
I just wish I had a neighbor that decorated so I could do the same one year.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders December 20, 2011 | 6:08 p.m.

LOL, I just noticed for the first time that "nudity is prohibited" in the comment section.

Meanwhile, I can't figure out how they'd ever know! Luckily I never leave the house without my mankini. o_O

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.