Deck the House Spontaneous bursts of color, light make spirits bright in Baltimore

December 21, 1992|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

During the past 25 years, thousands of motorists have idled in front of Del and Mary Delano's rancher in Carney, ogling their sumptuous Christmas spread: Nativity scenes, toy soldiers, elves, Santas, reindeer and candy canes.

The Delanos present one of Baltimore County's most beloved lawn productions, an ever-expanding Christmas tableau that has claimed yard, roof, mobile home -- and has inspired the next-door flamboyance of the properties belonging to their children Randy and Toni Delano and Denny and Mary Delano Bayer.

Their holiday decorations illuminate the long dark nights, seeming to promise better times and brighter days -- and a drive through many neighborhoods will prove that "putting up the lights" has become, at least in Baltimore, one of the season's expressions of hope and giving.

"Not only do many of these people give you the gift of passing by and enjoying their displays but a number of them also give something away, like candy canes, too," says Elaine Eff, director of the Cultural Conservation Program for the state of Maryland.

The Delanos' place is a fantastical island of 20th-century Christmas. So are the 700 block of 34th Street in Hampden, Sonny and Dorothy Singer's house in north Hamilton and the wonderfully decorated windows of East Baltimore.

"Each year we find all kinds of notes on the porch, thank-you notes that say, 'We saw this, we stopped, thanks for doing this,' " says Mr. Delano. "People have rapped on our door to let us know how they feel. There have been a lot of exchange students from other countries who have never seen anything like this before."

His son-in-law Denny Bayer, who has mechanized a Christmas see-saw, Ferris wheel and train garden in his own yard, recalls the group of young Russians who visited last year. And, he says, church groups often gather in front of the manger in his yard to sing Christmas carols.

The Christmas traffic in this corner of the world became so fierce several years ago that the Woodcroft Neighborhood Association decided to convert Richmond Circle into a one-way street. And they put out extra trash containers.

Ms. Eff, of the Cultural Conservation Program, has spent a good part of her career appreciating Christmas decorations. In 1985, as the city's folklorist, she cataloged and collected information about many of the city's finest exterior displays.

Research showed that styles in holiday decorating illustrate the diversity of Baltimore's ethnic and social traditions, she says.

The city's most idiosyncratic decorating practice, for instance, is found in the intricate tableaux in the first-floor front and basement windows of rowhouses, a tradition that began as a way to delight children during the day as well as at night. Highlandtown, Canton and South Baltimore have some of the finest window displays, she says.

Bolton Hill is a fine place to admire richly decorated front doors. For neighborhoods like Homeland and Guilford, the wealth of the season tends to lie in understatement; Ms. Eff notes that often the bigger the house, the smaller the wreath.

The area's most illuminated Christmas yards, however, dedicate themselves unabashedly to children, the folks who don't particularly care for tasteful white lights.

Sonny and Dorothy Singer, for instance, schedule Santa hours at their Hamilton wonderland. From 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. during the week before Christmas, Santa sits in his workshop next to the Singers' lawn and hands out candy canes.

The property presents wooden carolers, a Nativity scene and characters from "Peanuts" mingling with snowmen and candy canes. The family's decorations date back to the 1950s; many of them are Mr. Singer's handiwork.

But Ms. Eff says she sees fewer and fewer homemade decorations.

"You see more from the Hallmark store: inflatable reindeer and inflatable Santas instead of a whole lot of original one-of-a-kind things. Decorating has come to be more about how people put together these store-bought and catalog-bought things."

These days, visiting mall displays is not nearly as rewarding as venturing out on a frosty night to explore new themes in decorating, she says.

"The shopping centers are completely controlled environments. It used to be you would make a night of going downtown with your family to see the store windows. That would be the event. But I'm not sure that going to the mall isn't always associated with going shopping."

One of the most rewarding neighborhood walks is through Hampden. Almost every street has become a surprising variation on the theme of Christmas illumination. The end-all glitter of the rowhouses along the 700 block of 34th Street seems to have captivated neighbors on Keswick, too.

Ms. Eff pronounces Hampden's decorating spirit very much alive and spreading.

"It has spilled out around the corner," she says. "This decorating is somewhat contagious. Instead of people damning the person who makes their street into a tourist attraction, everyone else buys into it."

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