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Keeping the Spirit in Christmas

Residents of Wauconda, Illinois: They refused to let the plug be pulled on Christmas.

Two water towers have always served as landmarks for travelers heading for their homes near Wauconda, Illinois. But especially at the holidays.

More than 40 years ago, John Kuester, then village police chief, suggested mounting large twin crosses on the towers to luminously mark the season. Adopted by the village, the display of crosses became a tradition. Right after Thanksgiving, when Christmas decorations went up, the crosses also lit the sky from their near-heavenly height.

But in 1989, Robert Sherman, spokesman for American Atheists, Inc., heard about the crosses. Since Wauconda's crosses were on government property, Sherman saw an alleged violation of church and state. He delivered an ultimatum: remove the crosses from the water towers or meet in court.

Several town hall meetings followed. Resident Joyce Mitchell, a member of Crossroads Community Church, asked God to give her the right words and right spirit before each meeting.

"The Christians in the community were united with the rest of the community--whether they were churchgoers or not--in refusing to let some outsider tell us how to celebrate Christmas."

But the decision was forced by economics. Realizing a similar case had lost in court, the residents of Wauconda opted not to burden themselves with hundreds of thousands of dollars in court costs.

Then a grassroots group of residents had the final say.

"Our business, Wauconda Boat Company, is located across from the village hall," resident Rosemary Buschick explains. "The meeting about the crosses was on a Tuesday night, and when it was over, we knew the crosses would have to come down. Then my husband, Chuck, went to the back room of the shop and constructed a window-sized cross with lights to display the next day. Will Shumaker, whose home appliance store is also on Main Street, also put up a cross. Within weeks, crosses were appearing on houses everywhere--attached to antennas, stuck in yards, beaming from trees, shining in windows. It seemed to just happen."

When Joyce Mitchell drove around the village with her daughters, who were 6 and 9 at the time, she began to cry. "The media portrayed us as losing the fight, but we didn't lose. Two crosses had been replaced with hundreds. God was glorified in the end."

The crosses continue to shine each year. "No one will tell us to take our cross down," says Rosemary Mers of Mers Restaurant, which inherited one of the original tower crosses. "That cross is up there forever."

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