BLOOMINGTON — Nine members of the Heavilin family from Strawn were taking a break from shopping at a concourse intersection in busy Eastland Mall on Friday, plotting their next move as they reminisced, teased, laughed and guarded their 22 bags of Christmas gifts.

"There's already a ton of gifts in the car," said Raygen Huber of Strawn.

"This is the Cougar Academy Black Friday Extravaganza," added Gena Vernon of Strawn, eliciting laughter from other members of the energetic, all-female group.

The Heavilin cousins were among thousands of Central Illinoisans who flocked to Bloomington-Normal stores on the day after Thanksgiving, commonly known as Black Friday, searching for Christmas presents as they embraced family.

"This is a tradition for us," said Stacey Heavilin of Strawn.

"We don't go out on Thursday," said Dawn Heavilin of Roscoe. "I refuse to go out on Thursday because I worked retail for 10 years."

"Thanksgiving is family day," said Amanda Phillips of LeRoy.

"We stay up late playing cards," Huber said.

Then on Friday, they continued their 12-year tradition of meeting at 6 a.m. at their "mobilization zone" in the Toys 'R Us parking lot in Bloomington before heading over to Target, then Eastland Mall. They take pictures to document their adventures.

"I have my Christmas list," said Dawn Heavilin, showing her hand-written list of Christmas presents with coupons taped to the back.

The Heavilin cousins pointed out that they were getting great deals. "Our Grandma Jessie would be proud of our spending habits," Vernon said.

"She raised 14 kids on a hired hand's pay," noted Dawn Heavilin.

Their next stop was McDonald's for a meeting of "the Cougar Academy Board of Directors" to plan their afternoon that would include Meijer, Hobby Lobby, Menard's, Sam's Club and The Shoppes at College Hills.

"We are from a big family," Vernon said. "We're all very close. The world is too serious. We like to have fun and we don't care what people think. The best part is being with your cousins."

"It's about the memories and the moments," Stacey Heavilin said.

Elsewhere on Black Friday

Outside Casey's Garden Shop, Carl Drake of Bloomington, his wife Kristen and their four children found the perfect Christmas tree.

"This is perfectly symmetrical, it's full, it has a straight trunk and it's a Fraser fir," he said. "What do you guys think?"

"It's not shedding all over," said Ben, 10. He and Ella, 8, like Fraser firs because their branches can hold ornaments and Ella likes the branches' blue tint underneath.

"It makes your house smell like Christmas," Ben said.

"I like tall trees. They look like a winter wonderland," Ella said.

The Drake family was joined by Carl's grandfather, George Drake of El Paso, and Carl's sister, Sarah Eisenmann and her son, Dale, 2.

"Every year, we come here to pick out a Christmas tree," Carl said.

"He picks out the best tree on the lot and I pick out the second best," George Drake said.

"It's a chance for us to be together," added Carl Drake, whose plan for later Friday was to go home, put up the tree and begin decorating it.

"It's Christmas season now," Carl Drake said.

At The Gingerbread House, Katie and Dalton Grossmann of Bloomington were picking out gifts for their four children, ages 2 through 6, as the children were visiting their grandparents.

"It's one want, one need and one read for each kid," Dalton Grossmann said. "We told the kids, 'Baby Jesus got three gifts so you get three gifts.' They understand that."

"It's a good time to reflect on everything we've been blessed with so far and to think about the joy that these gifts will bring to the kids' faces," said Dalton Grossmann. "But this is not just a toy fest. We're celebrating something important at Christmas and we need to make sure that's at the forefront of our kids' minds and our minds this holiday season."

Follow Paul Swiech on Twitter: @pg_swiech

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