'O Holy Nights' Christmas display at Strasburg house is a labor of love and friendship
When Justin Sheaffer and his friends were kids growing up in Strasburg, they used to visit a lavishly decorated house on Main Street every December.
There, they’d find Santa Claus sitting on the porch in a peacock chair. After telling Santa their Christmas wishes, the children would walk away from that house with a candy cane and the feeling that the world in which they lived was full of wonder. “It was awesome,” Sheaffer recalls.
Two or so decades later, when Sheaffer bought his own home in Strasburg, he wanted to honor the tradition of the late John Grissinger, who was Strasburg’s Santa, and give local folks “something to look forward to at Christmas.”
He didn’t merely deck his house at 18 S. Fulton St. with Christmas lights. He turned it into the setting for a December event in Strasburg — “O Holy Lights,” a Christmas light show synchronized to music.
He turned to a childhood friend to provide the narration.
That friend might have declined. He is, after all, a Tony-nominated Broadway performer, and a star of Disney’s new hit movie, “Frozen,” which grossed a record-setting $67 million over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
But, says actor and singer Jonathan Groff, "I’ve known Justin since I was 4 years old. … Basically, I would do anything for him."
And, recalling the porch-sitting Santa, Groff says, “It’s nice that Strasburg has a new tradition.”
In “Frozen” — an animated musical loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” — the 28-year-old Groff is the voice of Kristoff, a mountain man who falls in love with a princess named Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell).
"It feels completely surreal to be in a Disney movie," Groff says.
His mother, Julie Groff, says that seeing her son “play a Disney character is like revisiting his childhood, because that is what he did on a daily basis.”
The 2003 Conestoga Valley High School graduate has had recurring roles in the TV series “Boss” and “Glee.” And he originated the lead role of Melchior Gabor in the Broadway rock musical, “Spring Awakening.”
In “O Holy Lights,” the 25-minute light-and-music show created by Justin Sheaffer, Groff had a smaller, but nonetheless significant, role — that of host.
It’s his voice that is heard introducing the show, asking Christmas trivia questions, and soliciting donations for Schreiber Pediatric Rehab Center, a nonprofit facility in Lancaster serving children who have disabilities, developmental delays or injuries.
Justin Sheaffer’s wife, Jaime, trained at Schreiber while going to school to become a licensed practical nurse, and says she admires the work that is done there.
Last year, viewers of “O Holy Lights” donated more than $2,000 to Schreiber. The Sheaffers hope to raise even more this year.
Barbara Kavanaugh, Schreiber’s public relations coordinator, says the Sheaffer house offers “a wonderful way to get into the holiday spirit … in a way that really means something to the community.”
As the year ends, she says, “we’re looking to generate as much support as we can for children with special needs,” and “O Holy Lights” is bringing “some extra cheer to the center.”
The Sheaffer home is one of a number in Lancaster County that offers a synchronized music and light show. It, and other properties, are included in our 2013 guide to holiday light displays in Lancaster County.
That guide, which includes an interactive map, can be found on LancasterOnline.com. Smartphone users may wish to download the LancasterOnline app.
For his display, Justin Sheaffer had help from his father, Charlie, and brother Chris in creating wooden frames that fit around the windows, and on top of the porch railings, of his house.
More lights adorn the porch columns, eaves and trees, and lighted bells grace the dormer window on the house’s third floor.
All of the lights are synched to the show’s music — which includes songs by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Fall Out Boy — and audio clips from National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation.”
"The lights on the house are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before," Jonathan Groff says.
The Sheaffers and their supporting cast of family members and friends worked throughout October and November to get the Christmas light show ready. “It’s a labor of love,” Jaime Sheaffer says.
Justin Sheaffer says he and his wife love seeing children laughing and dancing outside their home, and they’ve been moved by anonymous thank-you notes left by parents whose children use Schreiber’s services.
The lights went on Nov. 30. To celebrate, the Sheaffers invited family and friends to their home.
As that gathering, it became clear that in creating “O Holy Lights,” Justin Sheaffer had drawn from his own wonder years.
Jonathan Groff was at the party, along with his mother and older brother, David. Margie and Bud Wolpert — parents of James Wolpert, a finalist on NBC’s “The Voice” — also were there.
Margie Wolpert and Julie Groff are sisters. They went to Lampeter-Strasburg High School with Justin Sheaffer’s mother, Gail, and another friend, Susan Hess.
The women in this tightly knit circle of friends all had children at about the same time, and saw their children become friends in turn.
Justin Sheaffer spent nearly every summer day swimming in the pool at the Groffs’ horse farm in Christiana.
Sundays at the pool had a theme — Hawaiian night, Christmas in July — and “everyone brought a covered dish for the evening meal that tied into the theme,” Julie Groff recalls.
Jonathan Groff was the kid brother who somehow managed to get the older kids to take part in the shows he put on in his father’s barn.
He played Dorothy in his own production of “The Wizard of Oz.” He was “the best person for the role,” says his older brother, David.
Justin Sheaffer was the Scarecrow. “You were really good, by the way,” Jonathan Groff tells Sheaffer.
David Groff played the Tin Man, and their friend Afton Hess, who also was at the Nov. 30 party, played the Cowardly Lion.
When David Groff got married two years ago, Justin Sheaffer was a groomsman, and Afton Hess was a groomswoman. “It was the cast of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ reuniting for my brother’s wedding,” Jonathan Groff says, with a laugh.
The friends also staged “Mary Poppins” and “Peter Pan” — in the latter play, Jonathan Groff, playing the title role, was tied to a swing, so he appeared to be flying.
They often reprised their roles in Strasburg’s Halloween Parade, wearing their costumes on elaborate floats designed and constructed by their supportive parents.
"The parents, they did a great job with those floats," Justin Sheaffer says. "I remember oftentimes we’d be the only ones with a themed float."
He says the parents never did anything halfway. Their mindset, Justin Sheaffer says, was this: “No matter what we do, we’re going to be the best we can at it. Which is probably why we have a computer-controlled Christmas display.”
He couldn’t just plug in some lights, he says. “They have to dance. And they can’t just dance — they have to dance to the music.”
As for his friends, Justin Sheaffer says, “The roles we took on then are almost the same roles we have now. I went to school for engineering — I was always building things.”
David Groff, who’s now in business, charged admission to the plays in the barn, handled the money, and made sure everyone did what they were supposed to do.
And Jonathan Groff, Sheaffer says, “was always acting.”