Shangri La light display a reminder of family, giving

Dec 19, 2022

When 26-year-old Tommy McNevin died in 2009, his family received a visit from their neighbor Seamus. Seamus, originally from Ireland, told the McNevins that it is tradition in Ireland to plant a tree in memory of a lost loved one. He planted an evergreen tree in the front lawn of their home on Restful Lane in Shangri La. 13 years later, “Tommy’s tree” towers above the McNevin household.

“Tom would give you the shirt off his back and the last dollar he had if you asked him for it,” said his sister, Jennifer McNevin. “He was a great guy.”

For the past six Christmases, Jennifer has decorated Tommy’s tree, and the rest of her front lawn, with an elaborate display of thousands of lights. The display is synchronized to music, blinking to the tune of 20 preprogrammed Christmas songs. The neighbors used to dislike the music, but it grew on them. 

“I know over there there’s 500,” Jennifer said, counting the lights from the living room window. “One, two, three... 600 on the fence.”

Tommy’s tree is decorated with 1,000 lights. Another 1,000 lights festoon the front of the house — and there’s more where that came from. Bins of decorations fill the McNevins’ living room, and there is an entire shed of decorations out back. More decorations arrive by mail each day. When Jennifer came home from work, her mother Althea McNevin excitedly showed her the family’s latest purchase, an inflatable trio of holiday garden gnomes for the front lawn.

“Yes!” Jennifer gasped. “Oh my God, I love them!” 

From the day after Thanksgiving, when Jennifer started working on it, the display took two weeks to set up. Her father Dennis McNevin used to put up the display, but Jennifer desires total creative control.

“She won’t let him touch it,” Althea said. 

Jennifer considers the display to be her gift to the neighborhood. 

“I’ve always loved giving people stuff,” she said, “and all the neighbors love the light show. Christmas is more about giving than getting, and I just love that.”

This year, the McNevins gave half of their decoration collection to those who had none, including a local family with two children. 

“The minute their kids came home,” Althea said, “they decorated [their] tree. That makes me overjoyed to know that we could make them happy.”

“If they’re less fortunate than us, and I’m not going to use it, I’d rather give it away,” Jennifer said. “If I can make someone else’s Christmas and their little kid happy, I’ll go for it.” 

Althea calls her daughter a “Christmas fanatic.” Inside and out, their home has been “Christmasized” (Althea’s word) with caroling reindeer, trees, Santas, squirrels and gingerbread houses with dancing snowmen.

“We don’t allow her to decorate the TV,” Althea said, “or she would.” 

Jennifer is not the only “Christmas fanatic” in the family. Her brother Dennis McNevin Jr. decorated his pet bearded dragon Puck’s tank with Christmas lights.

“He thought the dragon needed lights,” Althea said, “because the dragon does love lights.”

As she spoke, Puck was looking at his lights. Althea said that Puck loves to try to escape his tank and climb into the Christmas tree. 

The family would have even more decorations, Jennifer said, if their dog Scooby didn’t try to eat them all. Althea jokingly warned Scooby that if he didn’t stop barking, he would be one of the ornaments outside.

In this realm of Christmas cheer, the one outlier is “Sally,” a creepy doll left over from Halloween, swinging from a tree limb. Jennifer plans to put a Santa hat on her.

“Sally’s going Christmas this year,” she said. 

Jennifer wanted another tree for the front lawn, but when she couldn’t get one, she had the “ingenious” idea to make a makeshift tree out of cages used for tomato plants in the family garden. Jennifer spent an entire rainy weekend making the “tree.”

“Not only [was I] trying to get the tomato holders where I want them,” she said, “but every single light.”

When the lights didn’t work, she had to untie each and every strand of lights to start all over again. Hearing the neighbors’ reactions, however, makes it all worth it.

“It makes us happy that they’re happy,” Althea said. 

Jennifer used oven drying racks to make a toy house for the lawn, which was also covered in lights.

“Can you tell that we don’t care about the electric bill during Christmas?” Althea said. 

Standing outside in her personal winter wonderland, Jennifer danced to the Christmas music playing on the speakers. She walked across the street to see the house from a pedestrian’s point of view. One thing was missing, she said: More lights.