Hundreds of people crowded Saturday night onto the 700 block of West 34th Street in Hampden for perhaps the most Baltimore of holiday traditions: flipping the switch on thousands of lights that transform a small stretch of rowhouses into a glittering winter wonderland.
Now in its 71st year, Hampden’s “Miracle on 34th Street” lighting marks the city’s unofficial start of the holiday season, with a special appearance from Santa Claus to lead the count-down.
“It’s just nice to see the smile put on everybody’s face,” said Sandy O’Rear-Showalter, who’s never known a Christmas without 34th Street’s lights.
She lives across the street from the home where she grew up, an end unit rowhouse her father would decorate from top to botttom with lights and garland.
O’Rear-Showalter also prefers traditional decor. Evergreen bows with pine cones and shiny red ornaments were draped along her railing, across her fence and along the porch.
Across the street, O’Rear-Showalter’s sister and brother-in-law live in her parents’ old home, hardly visible this time of year behind the illuminated figurines, strings of lights and a display case featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s a carousel of holiday characters on the porch roof, and atop the rowhouse toy soldiers and drummers stand at attention.
Bob Hosier, O’Rear-Showalter’s brother-in-law, sets to work decorating right after Halloween.
“Whether this was happening or not, I’d be doing this,” Hosier said of the block full of holiday lights. “It’s not something I have to do; I just enjoy it.”
The block draws visitors from throughout the region.
Melissa Martinez, who grew up in Medfield and now lives in Guilford, said her family used to drive by every Christmas Eve.
“It was a Christmas tradition,” Martinez said, and one she hopes to establish for her own young family.
On Saturday, she and her husband, Anthony Herrera, brought their 1-year-old son, Nathaniel, to see the spectacle for the first time.
Six-year-old Jaxon Sylce of Pasadena and his seven siblings were also soaking in the sight for the first time. Jason Sylce, Jaxon’s father, had heard about the light display and, motivated by unseasonably warm weather, decided to pack the family into the car, stock up on hot chocolate and see what the buzz was all about.
Jaxon said he was most excited to see the lights but also eager to get a glimpse of the Man in Red.
Just before 6 p.m., the crowd filling the street, which had been blocked off to traffic, parted to make way for Santa. Together, he and the crowd counted down from 10, and the block lit up.
At one home, a flock of pink flamingos filled the front yard; there was a Christmas tree made of hubcaps and another fashioned from old records. Baltimore icons Mr. Boh and the Utz Girl were featured prominently on one home and a blow-up polar bear with a dreidel sat outside another.
While not an obligation, all the homeowners in the block participate in the tradition, said Shacara Waithe, who has lived on the block for five years. Longtime residents with extra holiday cheer — Hosier said he has enough to cover four houses — share it with newcomers.
They all pitch in every year to put up some lights and a wreath or two at homes that might be for sale or otherwise unoccupied.
“It’s an unspoken agreement,” said Waithe, whose rowhouse was decorated in a purple, gold and green Mardi Gras theme. “You live on the Christmas street — you don’t want to be a Grinch.”