Life in Baltimore should be edgy, funky, provocative - particularly when it comes to decorating for the holidays.
So says Chris Jensen. The Charles Village plumber has managed to do his bit for cultural awareness by inserting a space alien into his Christmas Nativity scene.
Every night during the holidays, on the porch roof of a rowhouse at Howard and 28th streets, passers-by can find an illuminated paradigm of heavenly inclusiveness. There, along with Mary, Joseph, Jesus, a shepherd and three Magi, is a character you might consider the Manger Stranger: an earnest green creature about 30 inches tall paying its respects.
The effect can be powerful.
One fan, artist Tracy Jacobs of Hampden, was so taken with the display that she asked Jensen's permission to make it into a holiday card. Her only dilemma, she says, is what message to include:
"Season's Greetings, Earthlings"?
A simple "Believe"?
Not everyone shares Jacobs' immediate fondness for the scene. Take the woman who accosted Jensen at the plumbing supply store.
"She said, 'You live in that house? I just want to take a gun and shoot all those things down. It makes me so mad!'" he recalls. "And there was one little old lady who said, 'I think what you're doing is wrong, Mr. Jensen. You can't be putting the Lord Baby Jesus up there with that space monster.'"
No harm was intended, he assured her.
Jensen bought the alien at Target for a Halloween display before realizing that Christmas might hold far greater potential. The next coup was locating the Holy Family at a vintage store in Reisterstown.
Jensen, 48, is just the sort of character he expects to find in the city. Born and raised in "Parkville/Carney," he lives in the house that his great-grandma "Too-ta-loo" - "her real name was Louise but she was always saying 'Toot-a-loo'" - bought for his grandpa Bill as a wedding present in 1922.
He's been named "Baltimore's Best Plumber" by the City Paper.
And he's also achieved something like a reputation for chasing after people who litter and for creating intriguing sculpture from pipes and faucets. "I'm an artsy guy," he confesses. "That's the only thing I was good at."
The Nativity display, now five years old, marks the first time Jensen ever tried his hand at holiday decorating. Now he's considering another idea: a giant, illuminated Leg Lamp.
"The new symbol for Christmas is the leg lamp from that movie, A Christmas Story," he says. (He's speaking, as any Christmas Story fan knows, of the ill-fated lamp Ralphie's father receives as a contest prize.)
Constructed from Christmas lights mounted on a sectioned frame, the holiday leg would measure 15 feet to 20 feet tall and sport an illuminated stiletto shoe and fishnet stocking. Ideally, it would take up one wall on the 28th Street side of Jensen's house during the holiday season. The Holy Family and the alien would still face Howard Street.
"Because of popular demand I can never take the Nativity scene down," he says. "My ultimate goal is for John Waters to use my Nativity scene in one of his movies.
"Please, John! Help a brother out!"
Having trouble decorating your power boat for Christmas? Chris Stewart's tips include planning, persistence - and lots of trips to the Dollar Store.
Stewart is the skipper of Spoiled Rotten, perhaps the most decked-out power boat in Baltimore's harbor. There's much to admire about this 60-foot vessel's seasonal illumination: Santa's handsome sled and four animated flying reindeer ... the palm tree ... the Christmas tree ... two American flags ... the inflatable Frosty and his son ... the Nativity scene ... and the strings of lights that brighten up everything.
Equally admirable is what it takes to maintain this display. With roughly 15,000 lights that need tending - as well as the boat's regular upkeep - Christmas aboard Spoiled Rotten is hardly the smooth sail you might expect.
"I know how to stick with something and make it right," Stewart says.
The first illuminated reindeer, for instance, took him about 40 hours to create. There was the design, the wiring and the computer programming necessary to make it leap gracefully through the night. The key to the puzzle, he says, was realizing each figure would require three sets of legs.
He has positioned the Holy Family and the rest of the manger's regulars - the camels, the Magi, a shepherd - on a dinghy-shaped platform that hangs from the davit at the boat's starboard side.
The public appreciates the effort. Every night, traffic along Aliceanna Street slows while drivers gawk at the light show docked at Slip 40 in the Chester Cove Marina, midway between Fells Point and Canton.
And during the past few weeks, Stewart's decorations have won first-place awards in the Baltimore Parade of Lighted Boats and the annual Eastport Yacht Club's Lights Parade, an event that attracts 30,000 spectators.
It's not the first time, either.
"I get into decorating quite a bit more than most folks," Stewart says. "I love doing this because it gives me another way to go boating when a lot of other people are putting theirs away for the season."
The 44-year-old captain, who grew up in Anne Arundel County, says he was destined for a life on the water. After he discovered his skills as a lifeguard, he joined the Coast Guard. Now he supports himself by repairing boats.
Several years ago he bought Spoiled Rotten, a Chris-Craft motor yacht formerly owned by country-western singer Barbara Mandrell. Fully heated and air-conditioned, the boat has four bedrooms, three full baths, four computers that talk to one another, four TVs and six stereos. Stewart plans to charter it for day and overnight cruises.
It's already gained fame as an excellent place to share Christmas cheer.
Which may be why crew members are easy to find this time of year. Thirty volunteers materialized for the Baltimore parade; 15 helped out in Annapolis. One friend wore Stewart's Santa outfit: The captain has wired a very large red suit with 1,000 lights - both inside and out. Whenever Santa visits this boat, he becomes quite the jolly old elf - especially when he's waving to fans and rocking to a booming tape of "Feliz Navidad."
"It gets real joyful in front of a crowd," Stewart says. "We get people in the mood."
Prentiss Browne was close to 50 when he first planted the star on top of the tree in his front yard.
It was 1969, two years after he and his wife, Janet, had moved into the stucco house on Overhill Road. Their youngest daughter Rebecca was already in college, and the Norway spruce was already more than 50 feet tall.
But Christmas was coming, and the tree looked as if it could use a star. Janet thought it was a good idea. The Baltimore architect didn't need more of a reason to start climbing.
"I'm a nut," he says. "I like doing things like that."
Up he went, a 100-foot extension cord tied to his waist to help guide him back through the branches to earth. It was the birth of the Overhill star and the Age of Aquarius. Over the next 25 years or so, Browne would climb back up to reposition the star, or to replace the cord when the squirrels chewed through it. He never saw a need for additional decoration, he says.
Meanwhile, he designed churches and schools and even prisons around the state. Closer to home, he designed the prominent stone-clad science building at Loyola College. Janet, an interior designer, worked on the same projects as her husband.
The couple found themselves married for 50, then 60, years. The Norway spruce continued to grow until it was more than 80 feet tall. And, each year, the star continued to shine from Dec. 1 through the first week of January .
At 84, Prentiss Browne figures he may be the oldest person on Overhill Road, with the exception of his neighbor Sam Hopkins. Trim and dapper, still wearing a fresh flower in his coat lapel, he considers it his duty to illuminate the Christmas sky with his star.
But maintaining it has become a bit more complicated. For one thing, he now uses the services of a younger climber.
Some years ago, the architect came up with a sturdier attachment for the star: He drilled holes into a 20-foot section of pipe, then ran ropes through like laces to tie it to the tree. He secured the star to the very top.
Over time, the top of the spruce tree has become visible to more homes, spreading the star's light a little farther. Folks on Wickford Road, all the way across Linkwood Park, now mark their calendars by the star. A woman down the street leaves an annual gift, sometimes a trinket, sometimes homemade jam, on the Brownes' doorstep.
Browne misses his days of tree climbing. There's a certain peacefulness to perching at the top of the neighborhood, swaying back and forth at the treetop. It's better than flying in a small airplane, he says. He used to be able to see all the way over to the Hopkins campus.
Now earthbound, he especially appreciates the simplicity of his Christmas star. It's become distinctive in a world of red and green lights, inflatable Santas and flying reindeer.
Born and raised in a rowhouse in Baltimore, Browne devoted his architectural career to academic and other institutional projects.
"When I finally went out on my own, I wasn't going to copy a damn thing," he says. "I wanted everything to be simple, but different."
It's the same with his Christmas beacon. Prentiss Browne says he's never seen another star exactly like his, and that suits him just fine.