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Utah family sets up Christmas display early to honor dying father with cancer

BRIGHAM CITY, Utah — Christmas came early outside a well-known home in Brigham City this year to honor a dying man with cancer, whose music Christmas display has brought light to countless visitors over the years.

Rex Yarger started out small with a glowing nativity more than 30 years ago. And every year since, his daughter Sheila Roche said, “it’s grown bigger and better.”

“If you want to think of a guy who makes his light shine for others, that would be my dad,” Roche said. “Both in the spiritual sense and through his light show.”

Yarger has always loved Christmas.

To many elementary students and his own grandchildren over the years, he was the jolly man himself behind the red suit and white beard. But even more than loving the holiday, his family said Yarger loved giving through kindness and his growing light display.

As Santa, Roche said he would end his visit with the students with a request.

“The favor is: you need to do an act of service and act of kindness for someone, but you can’t tell anybody about it.”

Yarger’s light collection grew over the years, and about 15 years ago, he added music to the display.

Today, you can sit outside his home for 40 minutes, from 5:30 to 10 p.m., to watch a synchronized light show.

“We’ve been in Brigham City for six years and quickly caught on that this is a place to come,” said Mark Willis while sitting in his van with his children.

Like so many others, the Yarger light display has become a Christmas season tradition for the Willis family, who will come a couple of times a week to experience it. But like other visitors, Willis has never met the man behind the display and didn’t know who he was until this year, when the Yarger family decided Christmas would have to come early.

In June, Yarger survived a heart attack, just in time to learn he had cancer.

Roche said, “his timeline went from two years, down to six to nine months, down to two to four months.”

At the beginning of October, the 69 year-old father of six, grandfather of 20 and great grandfather of eight ended his cancer treatment.

“When he decided no more chemo, we decided Christmas in October,” Roche said.

His extended family got together and spent most of the day setting up the lights. It was the first time Yarger didn’t join the set up.

“He was not very with us at that point in time,” said Verna, Yarger’s wife. “He kept saying he wasn’t going to be able to do them this year.”

But on Saturday, his family surprised him with the light display — the sights and sounds he had poured his heart, time and money into over the last 30 plus years.

Verna said, “it was the best present we could have given him.”

And it couldn’t have been better timing. Roche said just 12 hours after he saw the lights for the last time, her father passed away at home.

“He did get to see it one more time, so we were all at peace with that,” she said.

And over the coming days, his family would learn just how big of an impact their father and grandfather had on his community. Visitors began pulling up to the display on the first day, and many of them have written and dropped off letters for the family, thanking Yarger for his years of giving light.

“Your lights have brightened our hearts. We are so thankful for the impact you’ve had on our family and community,” one card said.

The family of a preemie wrote, “This light display helped him calm down when he was having a bad day.”

“Thank you for all the time, effort and money it took to do this. We always wondered how much your electricity bill was?” another read.

“One of my first activities we did here was watch your Christmas lights. It’s become a family tradition ever since that we have loved.”

The written words were just what the family needed so soon after his loss.

“Having the cards to read every night has eased the burden of his death just a little bit,” Roche said through her tears. “We’ve been able to laugh and cry and smile knowing people cared so much.”

“It’s just been amazing,” Verna said. “We didn’t realize that he had touched that many people.”

This year, thousands of bulbs will go out for the last time outside the Yarger home this Christmas. Verna thought it fitting that the tradition end with her husband, but she added, “I don’t know that Christmas will be the same without it.”

The lights may go out, but the family hopes the light from the man behind the display will continue to brighten lives for years to come.

“I think it was a light in the darkness for many people,” Roche said. “Just like he was.”

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