When it comes to holiday decorations, these communities do not hold back.
Alameda, a California city just south of Oakland, doesn’t usually see a lot of foot traffic. Eleven months out of the year, Thompson Avenue, an evergreen-lined street just off Alameda’s main drag, is quiet. Residents pilot their cars in and out of the neighborhood with ease.
But during December, “it turns into Disneyland,” says Steve Geahry, a ten-year resident of Thompson Avenue and the current organizer of its annual holiday lights extravaganza, Christmas Tree Lane.
The 3200 block of Thompson Avenue has exploded in Christmas cheer every year since 1938, when a group of cousins who lived on the street decided to outwit the Great Depression by stringing lights from their front yards out onto the tall trees that still march down the median strip. The other neighbors soon joined in, and as houses changed hands over the years, new residents did, too. Now, visitors stream in from surrounding streets and cities to check out the displays.
For Geahry, the holiday tradition was a major draw. “I grew up loving Christmas lights—as soon as I could take over decorating our house from my dad, I did—and I moved here on purpose because I thought it would be a fun spot,” he says.
Some residents get more into decorating than others, but everyone is on board. “There’s this sort of neat inertia,” Geahry says. “Everybody knows that at the beginning of December, it’s time to put up some lights.”
In a sort of holiday-themed, neighborhood-scale variation on the game Telephone, the whole street glows by the week after Thanksgiving. Some houses keep it simple with strands of lights; Geahry goes admittedly over-the-top with coordinated music and displays. The way people decide to decorate, Geahry adds, reflects the diversity of the neighborhood. “We have a mixture of backgrounds and religions,” he says. One house sets out luminaria—paper lanterns traditional to the American Southwest; others keep it secular with snowmen. “In a way, it does a nice job of representing the Bay Area,” Geahry says.
Thompson Avenue is where I remember driving as a kid for an overdose of holiday cheer, but a handful of neighborhoods in cities across the U.S., from Baltimore to Seattle to (of course) Santa Claus, Indiana have developed their own communal decorating traditions. There’s an undeniable appeal to such unabashed merriment—Geahry says that local real estate agents hype Christmas Tree Lane as a selling point for nearby houses in Alameda. In recent years, the tradition has been packaged and game-ified. Time describes how some cities, like Nashville, host annual contests in which individual houses and neighborhoods duke it out for the title of best-decorated; ABC’s The Great Christmas Light Fight doles out $300,000 in prizes to the most uniquely festive properties in the country.
But for neighborhood residents, the tradition of holiday decorating is something more selfless. The Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn is home to arguably one of the most famous annual displays, but Frances Vella-Marrone, a lifelong resident and president of the Dyker Heights Civic Association, says the event wasn’t designed for glory. Vella-Marrone, who grew up in the neighboring district of Bay Ridge, remembers Dyker Heights being decked out more modestly in the 1950s. “But sometime in the ‘80s, a couple of homeowners decided to expand and install these big displays,” she says. It didn’t take long for the rest of the community to adopt an attitude of “more is more” when it comes to Christmas. “It was a domino effect,” Vella-Marrone says.
While Dyker Heights’ displays have garnered national attention—the 2001 PBS documentary Dyker Lights dove deep into the tradition—Vella-Marrone says the process, each year, is still organic. “It’s all done by the homeowners,” she says. “Nobody believes me, but there’s nobody organizing this.” Homeowners decide what theme they’ll adopt, when their lights go up, and when they come down. Some hire professional decorators to install their displays to the tune of a couple thousand dollars—one cannot independently install 20-foot-tall Nutcrackers without risking a hernia—but it’s all self-motivated, and in the spirit of community.
But that sense of altruism, Vella-Marrone says, has been threatened in recent years by the decorations’ notoriety. “In some ways, we’ve become a victim of our own success,” she says. Tour buses flow into the neighborhood, bringing an influx of visitors to a residential community that, like Thompson Avenue, is normally sleepy. But unlike Alameda, where Geahry is excited by the prospect of visitors—“I hope it gets people out here and exploring more of the neighborhood,” he says of Christmas Tree Lane—Vella-Marrone senses Dyker Heights beginning to chafe under all the attention.
Crowded with tour buses and visitors’ cars, the neighborhood’s streets are increasingly difficult for residents to navigate, Vella-Marrone says, and food trucks and vendors have begun to populate the area. Last year, Dyker Heights community associations worked with the local police department to devise a plan to keep buses off residential streets and curtail illegal vending. “This was just a nice tradition that the community had, but now, people are trying to find ways to profit off it,” Vella-Marrone says. “The bottom line is it’s still a residential community, and we have to find a balance or we’re going to get overrun.”
Vella-Marrone’s complaints echo those that have been heard in neighborhoods across the U.S. since the 1980s, when large-scale decorating really took hold. A Los Angeles Times article from 1986 describes how residents of a notably well-decorated neighborhood in Pasadena used to groan when their elaborate displays drew too many admirers. “The traffic gets so bad up here with all the people looking at the lights, that last year my brother had to stop traffic for me to get the car out of the driveway,” said resident Bob May.
But like Geahry, May moved to Upper Hastings Ranch, Pasadena for the lights; for him, the benefits of the tradition far outweighed the drawbacks. That sense of community and festivity brought Geahry and May to their respective neighborhoods, and it’s what what Vella-Marrone believes will keep the Dyker Heights tradition alive. “It just a magical feeling, when you’re here and the lights are on,” Vella-Marrone says of Dyker Heights. “You have to remind yourself that you’re still in your neighborhood, because for a second there, you’re transported.”