Luminaria group takes a shine to lighting streets at New Year's


October 26, 1999|By John J. Snyder | John J. Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WANTED: BLOCK captains. No experience necessary. Duties include being neighborly, playing in sand and starting fires. Apply at

Kings Contrivance resident Jay Cincotta could place such an ad to recruit help (although he hasn't). Cincotta plans to bathe 1,000 Columbia streets in candlelight on the evening of Jan. 1, 2000.

"I think he got the idea when he was a kid," said his mother, Elaine Cincotta, who lives in Town Center. "We used to drive over to the neighborhoods by Centennial Lane at Christmas where they had luminaries on the streets."

Luminaria are candles set in paper bags filled with sand. When lighted, the candlelight, filtered through paper, casts a soft glow. At night, the luminaria will create a startling landscape of small, flickering lights surrounded by darkness.

The idea comes from a Spanish tradition of lighting bonfires for Christmas. In the early 19th century, the custom of lighting candles in paper bags was brought to the American Southwest from Mexico by Yankee traders and eventually worked its way to Maryland.

The nonsectarian Luminary Project is meant to welcome the new year with a grand expression of community spirit.

Cincotta, 39, remembers when his father, Joe, drove him, his mother and younger brothers Tom and Doug to see the streets lighted by candles at Font Hill, near Centennial Lane.

"The thing that impressed me as a kid is that I thought it must be a pretty cool community," Cincotta said.

In 1996, he tried out a smaller version of the luminaria project on his street in Kings Contrivance. With the help of his wife, Cindy, and 32 families, Cincotta lighted 200 luminaria for one night in December, around Christmastime.

The next year, the group of neighbors managed to light all the streets in their neighborhood of Huntington. By 1998, the Cincottas' effort resulted in 25,000 luminaria glowing on 100 streets in Kings Contrivance.

Caroling neighbors and winter block parties made it a spectacular holiday celebration.

The Luminary Project is a 100 percent volunteer effort -- the only way to pull off such a huge undertaking. In previous years, the highly visible artistic endeavor has, as Cincotta says on his Web site, "left those street leaders with renewed enthusiasm and confidence about themselves as leaders and their ability to make a difference."

The first step in organizing the effort is to find one person on each street to be the block captain. The rest falls into place after that, Cincotta says.

Debbie Carroll of Kendall Ridge met Cincotta in September at the Luminary Project's booth during the Lake Elkhorn Festival -- and signed up to be a block captain.

"I thought he had a neat vision," she said. "In one sense, he is doing the unthinkable. After seeing Kings Contrivance last year, I felt it would be great for the rest of Columbia."

Block captains receive in the mail a packet about the project, including fliers to be distributed in the neighborhood. As volunteers come forward, the captains coordinate activities according to Cincotta's plan.

This year, block captains will pick up supplies -- candles, bags and sand -- from a central point in each village. Working with other volunteers, they will fill each bag with a handful of sand, place the bags at 10-foot intervals along the curbs of their streets and set candles in the sand.

At dusk, the candles will be lighted. They are expected to burn until midnight, snuffing themselves out in the sand.

The cost of the luminary project is estimated at $30,000, Cincotta says. He has been given $500 in seed money from the Columbia Association. But he has spent that and more. Postage, printing, mailings and getting the Web site up and running have used up the grant.

Cincotta says he hopes to collect a $5 donation per household to pay for supplies and related expenses.

The Columbia Association, which is handling storage and delivery of supplies to the village centers, has printed 1,000 color posters and is handing out fliers at its facilities promoting the project.

Cincotta has found that many volunteers come on board after Halloween. So he has issued a "Halloween Challenge" to his recruits to bring in at least one person to help out.

Columbia Management Inc., which oversees commercial operations in eight of the nine village centers, is also helping. Kathie Van Nostrand, the company's special events coordinator, said CMI will provide booth space for the project's committee to register people at village center Halloween events."

"Jay's enthusiasm is infectious," Van Nostrand said. "I am really psyched to be a part of this."

At last count, Cincotta had 204 people signed up and 190 streets covered.

"It demonstrates that thousands of people really can organize themselves to make something happen on a scale that an individual might consider impossible," Cincotta said.

Cincotta's mother is looking forward to enjoying her son's celebration of the new year.

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