NEW PALESTINE — When Tom Rau was a boy growing up in Chicago, he lived with his mother and sister in a small community of tightly crowded houses, one where the homes didn’t have front yards.
But every Christmas — regardless of cramped quarters, the lack of electricity outside to light the bulbs — his mother went all out for the holiday, helping her children handcraft decorations to bring the spirit of the season to their home, even when times were tough.
This year, as Rau puts some of those same types of hand-crafted holiday seasons outside his New Palestine home, he does so in honor of his mother, the woman whose spirit now carries her through a battle with cancer.
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Rau, 30, is a now a resident of the Cedar Creek subdivision, where he has the kind of front yard he only dreamed about as a boy. It’s where he’s continuing the festive tradition of decorating in a style fitting his mom’s traditional Christmas spirit, he said.
“I decided back then I’d rather build things than use store bought,” Rau said.
Rau calls his Christmas display a scene-setter for the holidays, and the joy it brings is twofold. For neighbors, the display just adds to the festive nature of the neighborhood. For Rau, it’s a message of hope and thanks to his mother, who still lives in Chicago and is battling Stage IV lung and brain cancer, he said. It was his mother, Rau said, who showed him the spirit of Christmas regardless of their home’s size.
It’s a joy he’s carried with him.
“I guess I’m just a big kid at heart,” he said, sporting a Santa Claus shirt and hat.
While an illness keeps his mother in Chicago, Rau said they talk via the Internet as much as possible. He even takes her on virtual, step-by-step tours of the front yard, showing off the Christmas decorations she loves.
Seeing her son’s work brings back memories, Chris Rau said.
“Oh, he loved to decorate as a kid, and it was just something natural that we did together,” she said.
Rau’s mother is proud of how her son has taken what they used to do as a family and expanded it.
His front yard is filled with lights and handmade, wooden Christmas characters from holiday favorites including “How the Grinch Stole Chirstmas” and “The Polar Express.”
“He’s always thinking about what he can add for the next year and telling me about it,” his mother said.
He said he tries to be crafty, using wood and whatever he can get his hands on to create holiday cheer. It doesn’t have to be fancy, he adds.
“We’ve got some tomato cages to support some of the lights,” he said. “They’re only a buck.”
Tom and his wife, Monika Rau, use her family’s large, vintage wooden candy canes as the basis of the front yard display. The over-sized sweets surround the front yard and support old-fashioned Christmas lights.
Monika said she begins to see a glint of Christmas in her husband’s eyes around September. By the time October hits, he’s in full Christmas mode, she said.
While Monika likes to tease her husband, she also lends a hand to creating the display, painting and adding just the right touch to his wooden creations.
“He likes to do new stuff each year, and while I say, ‘Let’s just do one new piece,’ he always kind of pushes me to do more,” she said, “and that’s fine.”
He hopes his home will become a place people want to see this holiday season.
His display doesn’t have nearly as many lights as some others in the area, but that’s OK, he said — it’s meant to look like old-time Christmas, the kind he, his sister, Kimberly, and their mother used to have.
“I don’t want it to be overwhelming, and I wanted it to be handmade,” Rau said. “That lasts forever and means more.”