Thursday, January 22, 2015

On the 4th Day of Christmas bestie gave to me,
some Christmas lights and a cannoli.

Let's pause for just a second here and talk about how it's the 22nd day of January and NOT, actually, the 4th day of Christmas. First of all, it was lunacy to think that there would be time during the 12 days leading up to Christmas for me to sit and blog...DAILY. There's never any time for anything extra. I tried to do "The Kindness Elf" with Blue this year. That evolved into a couple of dollars crammed into the Salvation Army bucket and another stuffed doll sleeping in the bed every night. Thanks a freaking lot, Pinterest...the greatest irony ever - here, spend 2 hours pinning a bunch of crap that you are never going to have time to do because you're too busy pinning. Stupid kindness elf and all of his unfulfilled promise. And then Neal got sick with a ManCold that dug its back claws in for...uh...let's see...28 days now. And then Blue got sick. And then, because as iron-clad as my immune system is, it finally gave way and released the floodgates of snot. (Also, there is a story going around Facebook about a beautiful, 28-year old newlywed who got the flu and then got sepsis and died. Apparently, those who are most vulnerable to developing sepsis from the flu are the immuno-compromised, the elderly and those with asthma. I have asthma. For 24 hours at the beginning of this month, I was convinced I was dying of sepsis.) Also, being fresh off our trip, I was a little consumed by the details of all we saw and did and I wanted to convey each little piece to you completely and accurately. And that takes a lot of time. Now that there's about 6 weeks worth of distance, I am less concerned with the minutiae and more with just finishing what I started. So, here we go...

Is your house on fire, Clark?
No, Aunt Bethany, those are the Christmas lights.

It's like that in Brooklyn.

The year I was pregnant with Blue, Neal and I watched a PBS special about a particularly festive neighborhood in Brooklyn called Dyker Heights. Although the documentary covered several other neighborhoods nationwide, Dyker Heights definitely glowed. We spent that Christmas driving around our little military town, a thermos of hot chocolate between us and the shared expectation of stumbling upon some Dyker Heights magic.

What a trail of broken dreams we left behind us that December.

Come to think of it, that's probably what initiated our very first conversation about visiting New York City at Christmas. Thank you, Brooklyn.

Shana, hip to the Dyker Heights hype, booked us on a Friday night tour with A Slice of Brooklyn Bus Tours.  In addition to the Christmas lights tour, A Slice of Brooklyn also offers pizza tours, neighborhood landmark tours and a tour of famous movie locations...all in Brooklyn. As they say..."Manhattan? Fuhgettaboutit!"

The tour bus picked us in Manhattan and as we raced to the waiting coach from dinner, Neal and I experienced a moment of deja vu, both remembering when he had rushed off in London to meet a bar-hopping party bus. (Somehow, we never boarded that bus and instead spent the entire evening drinking vodka and dancing in the club. But that's a love story for another time.) As we found 3 seats together and peeled off our dripping rain coats, Paula, our illustrious hometown tour guide, welcomed us aboard. She chatted easily with everyone and joked with one of the tour "regulars" seated near the front. She is stereotypical Brooklyn, but in the best possible way. She plays to the character and it made the entire 3 1/2 hour tour a more relaxing and fun experience. (Shana warned us that her own inner Brooklyn might show through by the end of the night. She was able to keep it in check, surprising us all.)

As the bus pulled away from the rain-slicked streets of Manhattan, Paula gave us a little more insight into the neighborhoods we would be visiting and the stories of the families living there. Paula's cousin and A Slice of Brooklyn founder, Tony Muia, mentioned in a blog post by that most visitors see the lights, but they see the stories. As Brooklyn natives, Tony and Paula can rattle off the names of each home's occupants and the reason they decorate (or don't), as well as any juicy gossip that arises from the competition that is sparked each year. Paula mentioned that we would be touring the lesser known (and more subtle) light displays in Bay Ridge first before heading over to Dyker Heights, just a few blocks away. With her spiel completed, Paula turned on a video of classic Christmas shows for us to watch on TVs spaced throughout the bus. She referred to them as "under-rehearsed and over-intoxicated", which perfectly described every Christmas special with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and David Bowie. Although most of the clips aired in the 1950's, they were new to me and Shana took great delight whenever I asked, "who's that?" (Admittedly, I didn't know Frank Sinatra by sight - or by sound, unfortunately - and I thought she was going to Facebook unfriend me right then and there.)

I'm just now realizing that I don't think I have any pictures from Bay Ridge. But suffice it to say, the Bay Ridge Christmas lights demonstrated an understandable level of Christmas spirit. Once we arrived in Dyker Heights, the needle shot straight over to Crazy Town. Let's just start with these guys...
Since I don't watch any zombie shows (because they actually do scare the Hell out of me), please insert your own "Walking Dead" snowmen quip here: __________________________. I guess they don't melt for anyone. And they definitely don't like warm hugs.

Other homes around the corner were tastefully done, although more ambitious than something I would attempt. 

But then you turn up 84th Street and whoooaaaahhhh, Nelly. Or, Lucy, as is the case here.
This is Lucy Spata's house (yes, there is a house under there...somewhere) and the residence most widely credited with beginning the annual tradition of decking the halls...and the roof....and the driveway...and every square inch between the two. Although there is some argument that the annual over-the-top displays actually began at the house directly across the street with the late Al Polizzotto, Lucy insists that her mother was the source of it all. As neighbors began to complain about the holiday glow emanating from the Spata's home, Lucy's answer was, "If you don't like it, move!" Except in Brooklynese, that's more like "Moof!" And accompanied by some kind of sweeping hand gesture. Lucy adds some new element every year and declares the entire display a tribute to her mother, who has passed away. As a professional observer, Paula can look at Lucy's home (or any on the tour) and tell you what's been added each year. But really, where do you start?

Shana, in the rainy dark, poses with a seated animatronic Santa.
And Ally...

If your eyes are having an impossible time taking it all in, you should see it in person. Eventually, I just had to walk away because the part of my brain that celebrates holidays was dangerously close to completely short-circuiting.

Satisfied with the 382738348272 photos we had just snapped of Lucy's homage, we frogger'd (people should not be allowed to drive down this street at Christmas. It's dangerous for everyone) across the street to the Polizzotto home, which is just as breathtaking.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus...and he is 14 feet tall and 800 pounds. He's also animatronic and equipped with a camera and speaker so that Al could talk to whomever was approaching.
The piece was commissioned during Mr. Polizzotto's battle with cancer and was intended to bring joy to the neighborhood children. According to NYCGo, the gesture was so appreciated that when Mr. Polizzotto passed away, Dyker Heights went dark for one night. Flanking Santa is a pair of 30-foot, animatronic, toy soldiers. Let me give you a better idea of size...
That arrow is pointing to the top of Shana's head. Yes, these people need a crane to erect their Christmas decorations. That is a concept that is completely foreign to me.

In addition to Santa and his henchmen, the yard is full of "toyland" carousels, each weighing a ton and each completely capable of full motion.

If "seeing Christmas through a child's eyes" was the intent, well-done! Elementary school Allyson wanted to hop on a horse and ride, at least until security dragged me away.

With one more look across at Lucy's house,
we turned the corner to photograph "the inflatables house".
Again, where does one focus first? Snuggled life-size M&M's. Snoopy in a canoe. Mater resting on the front lawn. The Hulk and Captain America looming behind a group of instrument-strumming animals. So many blow-up Christmas displays that I've never seen at Lowe's...and quite a few that make an appearance annually. This homeowner, though, began a tradition of collecting donations from visitors for charities dear to him. The first, I believe, was the American Cancer Society (or maybe the American Heart Association, I can't remember now) but has grown to also collecting for local politicians. It's not pushy, but it's available. He swears that it's not to cover the electric bill.

Part of me wanted to come back in the morning, just to see if he keeps them inflated 24-7 or, if by the light of day, it looks like the Death of Christmas with superheroes laying lifeless and Mater flattened by the pull of a plug.

Another breathtaking house is decorated by Sam "The Greek", who brings a smattering of diversity to the neighborhood. In an historically Italian neighborhood (indicated by, among other things, the lack of a baby Jesus in the creche until after midnight mass on Christmas Eve), he proudly displays the Greek flag, an electronic sign wishing visitors "Season's Greetings" in an array of languages, and an illuminated snowflake with the Star of David periodically lighting up from within.

See that plexi-glass enclosed display in the foreground of this picture? In addition to the thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of lights, he also created this:
An entire miniature snow village that stories tall. I think I see a ferris wheel. (After finishing module 2 of the online photography class that Mom, Shana and I are enrolled in, I now realize I needed a different lens for reducing glare from the window. Live, take some classes and learn, I guess.)
I took this picture to remind myself many years from now that Sam "The Greek" decorates all four sides of his house. That, folks, is Christmas spirit that even Buddy the Elf lacks.

There is another house that celebrates diversity during a month that is, actually, about more than just those of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus (much to the chagrin of my more conservative friends and family).
Blue Christmas is the result of a "house divided": a Christian husband and a Jewish wife. Inside, half the house is supposedly decorated for Christmas, the other half for Hanukkah. And UK/UL couples thought they had it bad. They also hang an upside down Christmas tree in the front window. Although an upside down tree dates all the way back to a 7th century Benedictine monk who used the image to represent the Holy Trinity, it is finding its way back into pop culture. You can buy one at most major retailers (i.e. Amazon...I'm convinced that if it's not on Amazon, it doesn't exist) for less than $100. And on our flight to NYC, I was reading in my Kentucky Monthly about a university dean's wife who displays her own upside down Christmas tree in an effort to be unique and quirky. I fully expect to see one in the Pottery Barn Christmas 2015 catalog.

Although I have only shown you homeowner-decorated houses, professional light decorating is big business in Dyker Heights and Bay Ridge. It began with landscaping companies who realized that work was scarce when the grass quit growing. So, they began stringing Christmas lights and hauling in gigantic decorations. The 2 biggest names in professional decorating are B&R and De Meglio, which is obvious by the signs they post in each yard they do.

 It's pretty obvious, as you walk the streets of both neighborhoods, which ones are professional and which ones are, well...not. But one of my favorite memories of Christmas is the waist-high, lit, plastic carolers that my grandparents would put out each year and you just aren't going to find a faded plastic caroler in a professional display. Although it does afford many people who are just too busy to mess with it a chance to get in on the lights action.

Not pictured ( I know, hard to imagine, right?) is the teddy bear topiaries. One bush is planted each year a grandchild is born into the family. It is then meticulously sculpted into a teddy bear. As the child grows, the topiary grows. It's a streak of genius that I wish I could show you (actually, I'm sure there's a picture of it on Google Images somewhere. But I've worked too hard on this post to have to take it down because some photographer got his camera strap in a wad over me posting a picture of it here. So, consider it something to do the next time you're waiting for the pot to boil.)

Although Neal spent most of the tour walking alone through the neighborhood while Shana and I screwed around with our camera settings and tried to balance umbrellas over our heads but under our chins (never again will I make fun of the umbrella hat), I think we all enjoyed it. Soggy but surprisingly pleased with the entire experience. 

The evening finished with a cannoli and a hot chocolate at a restaurant in Brooklyn.
(Please excuse sock-cap hair. Actually, wet sock-cap hair, which is only slightly better smelling than wet dog.)
While some members of our tour group dropped shots from the bar into their cups and Paula worked the crowd, gliding from table to table with a flourish of the hand and a Brooklyn cackle that I had come to love, we dried out and warmed up. Sure it is possible to plan your own Brooklyn Lights Drive-By but it wouldn't be nearly as stress-free or fun. Drunk Dean Martin crooning from bus TVs on the way back to Manhattan is just the icing on the cake.

If you go, plan to be on the bus about 15 minutes before departure. If you prefer a certain seat, get there earlier. Paula is very entertaining so no reason to be worried about being bored on a bus while waiting for other passengers to arrive. Paula is also a photographer and is happy to help you with camera settings for the best pictures possible. Ours turned out pretty good, even in the dark, even in the constant rain. Thanks, Paula! I don't know when the tours start, but many homeowners don't start decorating until November so I would wait until December has descended before going on a tour (although book well before that). Many thanks to Paula and A Slice of Brooklyn Tours for such a memorable evening. I wish this post could do it justice but the truth is, you just have to see it for yourself!


  1. HOLY AMAZING!!!!! Every town should have a Dyker Heights, but then again that wouldn't make this place as special. What a great thing to have in a hometown area!!! Thank you for sharing all this - I'm hoping you all are feeling better!! PS I've had to swear off WebMD, or anything else that freaks me out like that story you shared or else I would go crazy thinking I was dying ever 10 minutes!!! PS Huge kudos for the Christmas Vacation quotes! Did you know that Aunt Bethany (the actress that plays her) is actually the voice of Betty Boop!?!?!?

  2. I totally love it all! You know how Richmond is .... and this was waaaay better!


That's it, let it all out....