New York is one of the most festive places in the world to spend December, and in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights the festivity is amplified with the biggest, maddest, sparkliest display of Christmas lights you’re likely to see anywhere in the world.
New Yorkers excel at festivity. The streets are strung with bunting and coloured lights, and enormous Christmas trees glitter on every block. Pairs of Salvation Army officers in heavy coats and Santa hats ring bells and get the pavement crowds dancing to ‘All I want for Christmas is You’. Children cluster eight deep, noses pressed to the Christmas window marvels in the shops along Fifth Avenue, and grown-up kids in Santa Claus costumes and reindeer ears run laughing from one holiday celebration to another.
Out in Dyker Heights, an Italian-American suburb of Brooklyn, the celebrations take on a Christmas-Wonderland-in-Suburbia theme, with whole streets competing for the biggest and best displays of Christmas lights. What probably began as a friendly annual neighbourly rivalry has become a bonafide tourist attraction in its own right, with busloads of tourists pouring in every night to wander the streets sipping hot chocolate and marveling at the Christmas light creations.
Some decorations retain a delightfully home-made air, a little rough around the edges – a nativity scene, tinsel angels, festive messages. The overall effect is built up year by year, growing organically without thought for the overall scope. Other homes show off major productions built and installed by professionals who specialize in snowmen with moving parts, Santas on carousels, and Christmas sound-effects.
I prefer the home-made displays because they suggest a degree of passion and perseverance. In the middle of one street, a sizeable crowd has gathered in front of one home. Like a gingerbread house over-zealously decorated with candy, the house is virtually invisible, hidden under rows of angels, nativity scenes, cartoon characters, giant candy canes, sentinel nutcrackers, Santa and his reindeer, and enough fairy lights to power downtown Manhattan. I overhear the guide escorting a group of tourists. “And this is where it all started. This very house.”
In front, an Elmo in sneakers is handing out candy canes and posing for photographs with children, their faces reflecting wonder and the coloured glow of a million bulbs. Mentally, I send an enormous thank you to the residents of Dyker Heights, for spreading joy and Christmas wonder amongst strangers.