Tour-goers discover city homes bedecked with much, much more than holly

December 30, 1991|By Elise Armacost

Rosalind Nester isn't sure which image will stick with her longer: the Wizard of Oz witch flying over Ken and Barbie's Christmas, or the leopard in the Nativity scene.

Ms. Nester and about 25 others spent Saturday night exploring Christmas displays on the Baltimore City Life Museums' "Holiday Traditions Bus Tour," a new event that destroys any notion that Christmas in Baltimore means white candles in the windows and a tasteful wreath on the door.

"We don't talk about taste on these tours," said Dean A. Krimmel, the museum's curator of local history and the tour guide.

We're talking -- let's be honest here -- tacky. Gloriously tacky, riotous, colorful lighting displays. We're talking giant candy canes and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sliding down a hill behind Santa's workshop. We're talking fun, the kind of holiday extravaganza a kid would love.

"I think it's so awful, it's just great," said Ms. Nester, a Baltimore resident, after visiting Richmond Circle in Carney, where there is a well-known Christmas display. The street has three houses that together look like Candyland, Emerald City and Disney World rolled intoone. The Ninja turtles are here, along with a Nativity leopard and more lighted Santas and storybook figures than you could count.

"My breath is really taken away, it really is," said Charles Williams, a Baltimore teacher. "It's something wild."

Not all the stops on the four-hour tour were so extravagant. The idea, said Mr. Krimmel, was not to find the gaudiest displays, but to showhow decorating customs differ from one neighborhood to the next.

"We're not only looking at pretty decorations, but at what they reveal about the people," he said. "A lot of Christmas decorations are related to stability and neighborhoods. There's a kind of social geography involved -- different decorations according to house type."

In Canton, where the row houses have no porches, people decorate the railings. Residents don't have lawns for Nativity scenes and holiday figures, so they set up window displays, usually a mixture of the secular and the religious, with the secular enjoying the upper hand.

Typical, Mr. Krimmel said, is a display on Lakewood Avenue, framed with red lights and gold tinsel, with Mr. and Mrs. Claus on either side of a Nativity scene.

As porches and lawns get bigger, so do the displays. Mr. Krimmel said he found that the best displays -- the most colorful and elaborate -- usually belong to families with children and in communities where everyone gets into the decorating act.

In Hampden, an entire block of 34th Street is lit from top to bottom, with lights strung across the street from roof to roof. The neighbors have an agreement to split the cost of the electric bill, Mr. Krimmel said.

Mr. Krimmel, who has become something of an expert on the history of Christmas decorations, said the idea of stringing lights around houses took off almost as soon as Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. Three years later, in 1882, the first Christmas tree was lighted at the home of the Edison Company's vice president.

The first strings of lights, manufactured by General Electric, went on the market in 1903 for the then princely sum of $12. As the years went by, lights become safer, cheaper and smaller. The "midget" light, invented in the 1950s, now dominates the market, though many city residents still use the larger bulbs.

The use of Christmas lights and other electric ornaments declineddrastically during the 1970s as a result of the Arab oil embargo, and the industry has never rebounded to what it was before then, he said.

He believes, however, that we're on the verge of a return to "greater lighting, with more and more people getting more and more elaborate."

The hottest trend in Christmas lighting, he said, is the "chaser," a computer-chip driven light string that flashes in a range of speeds. And, though upscale neighborhoods like Homeland and Roland Park appear committed to the white-light-in-the-window look, some people show a growing fascination with fancy, childishly garish displays.

One of the most popular stops on the tour was the Glen Avenue fire station, home of an extensive train garden that has, among other things, a model of the new Camden Yards stadium and Ken and Barbie threatening to be swept away by the tornado from the Wizard of Oz. "That's what I call 'camp,' " Ms. Nester said. "It's wonderful."

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