Dan Rodricks

New owners of a Baltimore Christmas house: Could you please leave the lights on? | COMMENTARY

Bill and Bonnie Ariano decorated their home at on Gittings Ave. every Christmas season since 1992.

Here’s the question: If a Christmas house — that is, one of those homes that every December becomes a local attraction because of its extravagant display of holiday lights — changes hands, are the new owners expected to maintain appearances?

In other words, if a couple buys a Christmas house from people who decorated said house with lights every holiday season for decades, and said buyers assume ownership of said lights along with title to the real property, should said buyers keep putting up said lights?


Isn’t it a civic obligation?

Shouldn’t it be required by ordinance or covenant?


Hey now, it’s a free country and the obvious answer is, “Of course not, you fascist.”

But this is serious business around Baltimore, and I’m sure I’m not the only person who wonders about it.

Christmas houses have become landmarks; people expect them to be there, aglow like the Griswold house in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” every year. Grandparents drive their grandchildren around the Beltway to see them; for some people, it’s the only time they ever get to Parkville. College students come home and expect to find Christmas houses where they’ve always been. Same with Baltimoreans who move away but return to the hometown for the holidays. Everyone knows where to reliably find lights.

So should the sale of a Griswoldian house, the mere changing of hands, be allowed to disrupt the public’s enjoyment of it?

These are deep philosophical questions. I understand that it might take time for you to grasp all of it, and I’ll provide facts of an immediate case in a moment.

First, an acknowledgment:

It takes special people and extra money to maintain a Christmas house year after year. The elaborate light arrays and lawn figurines require considerable storage space. Setting up the galaxies of bulbs each year is time consuming. Taking them down and storing them neatly takes even longer.

So I acknowledge that.


I am a permanent postulant when it comes to holiday displays. My greatest creation was some 20 years ago and not very good. It involved an old Oriental rug and a train set. I called it the Oriental Express. There were snowy mountains and lots of lights, a Santa helicopter, a one-horse open sleigh without a horse, a swarm of toys and animated figures, all on top of a round banquet table in the garage. I roasted chestnuts on an open fire in the driveway. We drew quite a crowd, including some guy named Tony from New York who, upon hearing that I had cooked baccala, a traditional Italian fish dish for Christmas Eve, went into my house and ate half of it while I was outside entertaining neighbors.

I was upset, of course, and decided I had to make a decision: Oriental Express or baccala. I couldn’t do both. Baccala won.

Anyway, back to my question about obligations.

There’s this one house on the north side of the city, not far from the Baltimore County line, and every year for nearly three decades, it has been covered with lights. The trees in the front yard look like illuminated waterfalls. It’s a glowing planet of Christmas lights on a street with otherwise modest and tasteful displays.

Now, here’s the thing. Bill Ariano and his wife, Bonnie, sold the house in October. They left all their holiday lights — boxes and boxes of them — with the couple who bought the house. The Thanksgiving weekend is upon us and there are no lights.

Bill would have had most of them up by now.


I knocked on the door, and Ryan Shelkett was nice enough to entertain my nosy question: Is he planning on maintaining the house as a Christmas house?

I’ll tell you what he said in a minute. First, another aside, this one about maintaining traditions.

If it’s a family thing, something your parents and grandparents did, then I can see where a person might feel obligated — might even enjoy — maintaining a tradition. I make the same Thanksgiving stuffing my Portuguese grandmother made after she arrived in this country 100 years ago and declared American stuffing bland. (Her recipe involves Italian sausage, black olives, hard-boiled eggs, one green pepper and, making it Portuguese, a dash of vinegar.)

Even so, I don’t know that there’s any tradition we’re obligated to continue, especially one as time-consuming as Bill Ariano’s Christmas displays.

But this Ryan, he seems to understand about the lights, and he says he’s already felt some pressure to put them up.

Here’s the thing about that: He and his wife, Monica, moved into the house in just the last couple of weeks. Ryan is in the toy business, and if there’s any business that’s busy a month before Christmas, it’s that one.


Plus, with the pandemic, no one should encourage people to gather to check out lights. Along 34th Street in Hampden, those who dwell on Baltimore’s most famous Christmas street are trying to discourage big crowds on their sidewalks. “Don’t come this year,” says the neighborhood’s website.

So, there you go.

I told Ryan to go back to his computer and phone and work on getting toys to kids.

He seemed interested in my offer: If he keeps Bill Ariano’s Christmas lights, then next year, right after Halloween, we’ll form a Griswold platoon and help set up the display. As I have never before said: Sometimes, it takes a village to keep a Christmas house.