South Philadelphia’s Christmas Tradition

Rowhouses decorated with elaborate displays of Christmas lights mark the holiday

By Ariel Kraakman

South Philadelphians love their holiday decorations so much they would take them to the grave. Literally, as in the case of Mary Yanetti.

Yanetti’s grandson, Jason Douglas, owner and teacher of Dancedelphia on the corner of 11th Street and Snyder Avenue, recently held a Christmas-themed funeral for his grandmother, founder of the dance studio.

Douglas describes it one Friday night in December as he sweeps his studio. To him, decking the halls in honor of Mary Yanetti was the obvious thing to do.

“She passed before Christmas, which was her favorite holiday to decorate for,” he says.

The event was festive, as Yanetti had hoped it would be. Poinsettias led the way into the room, which was filled with

A South Philadelphia Home at Christmas

Christmas trees “for the grandkids.” Her casket lay below a wooden beam wrapped in pine. Yanetti herself wore electronically lit Christmas earrings, which flashed even as the family closed the casket for the last time. People left the viewing to retrieve family members, so they wouldn’t miss out on the festivity.

The family also jumped out of their cars to perform the Mummers strut before entering the funeral parlor.

Mary “Grandmom” Yanetti had grown up at 7th and Federal Streets, which Douglas describes as “borderline Italian…by the projects; it was mixed…Hispanic, African American, Italians, a little bit of everything.”

Every holiday season she had strung lines of lights and decorations in her studio to please her little dancers, as Douglas does today.

Dancedelphia’s holiday lights twinkle welcomingly at all who pass by. The building’s fence and the trees behind it are luminous this time of year; garnered in white lights and classic red bows. At the side of the building, a colorful electric “Little Drummer Boy” decoration blinks on and off.

There are old-fashioned looking decorations too, like the cast iron children in Christmas hats climbing a cast-iron ladder. Inside the studio, a television broadcasts cartoons. At the end of the fence outside, in a doghouse-sized manger decked in electric stars, wooden figures of Mary and Joseph pray quietly over Jesus. On this night, miniscule red laser dots dance over a stack of pizza boxes on the front stairs, which are outlined in rope lights, movie theater-style.

That the decorations have strong Christian roots, like most in South Philadelphia, seems not to bother the many Philadelphians of all religions and backgrounds who send their children to Douglas’ studio for lessons. In fact, Douglas says, the studio is so diverse that a reality show was proposed there.

He had declined the offer.

“It might get me more customers but it would ruin my studio,” he explained. “What we are. We’re Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a diverse city, and you have it here.”

About the decorations, Douglas adds, “we see a lot of kids having a lot of joy in them, and my grandparents always did it because they wanted people to walk by and take pictures and have fun, and we’re keeping up with the tradition.”

South Philadelphia has changed since its older residents were young. Known then as a predominantly Italian-American neighborhood, it is becoming home to people of a variety of backgrounds, including a sizeable Mexican population. As the neighborhood’s identity shifts, one thing remains constant: residents’ love of extravagant holiday decorations. What started as an Italian neighborhood tradition is becoming a South Philadelphia hallmark.

To see the evidence, take a ride on the Route 23 bus from 12th and Market Streets toward South Philadelphia’s Lower Moyamensing (“LoMo”) neighborhood, which lies between Broad Street east to 8th Street and Snyder Avenue south to Oregon Avenue).

Long before the bus reaches Fitzgerald Street, lights and window displays in individual houses become more elaborate. On Wolf between 12th and 13th Streets, homogenous row houses draw attention by means of colorful lights connecting them to others across the street, all the way down the block. Residents of this street clearly cooperate in decorating for the holidays.

1132 Fitzgerald Street

In contrast, Fitzgerald Street, across 12th from Wolf, is characterized by artistic competition. An average of about 20 houses compete in LoMo’s Annual Holiday Decorating Contest, but 1132 Fitzgerald Street is home to a particularly dedicated contestant.

 Every year Josephine Michetti, past winner of the contest’s “residential” category,chooses a theme for her decorations, and this year she has once again delivered the crème de la crème of holiday decorating.

In an elaborate winter fairyland, her house is the princess’ castle. Small, fake trees, decked in pink and gold fairy wings with tiaras, somehow hang from the windows of both floors. Red bulbs dangle from every tree. The windows themselves are outlined in pinebranch intertwined with white lights.

Early in the evening, hours before Jason Douglas closes his studio for the night, Fitzgerald Street is already empty. It is quiet all around, as if the holiday lights are sucking up all the sound for their fuel. Though more than enough lights are on in

Michetti’s house, no one is home. An equally elaborate Mickey Mouse- themed house, which a passing neighbor identifies as Michetti’s daughter-in-law’s, is also vacant. From behind its doors multiple dogs howl at other dogs far away; invisible behind the thick silver tinsel hanging insidethe windows. Fitzgerald is a beautifully lit ghost street.

A pale, bespectacled man shatters the silence, exiting a house of more “average”décor two doors down from Michetti’s. The man, Hal Freedman, harbors opinions on Michetti’s past success. Glancing at her house hechuckles ironically, noting, “there’s a woman there who usually wins an award. Her boyfriend works for the city.”

But he follows up with a lighter comment, mentioning that although he is Jewish, “I love Christmas decorations; I love the seasonal stuff…I’m an artist myself; I’m a sucker for decorations.” As a child, his aunt

Lilly would dress up as Santa Clause.

In this year’s contest, Michetti’s house did not place in the top three finishers, but won an honorable mention.

The next neighbor with an opinion on the contest is Don Williams, a tight-lipped middle-aged blonde woman who also lives in a house of lesser decoration (impressive in any other neighborhood) at the end of the street. Williams is not happy to see a stranger at her door, and hasn’t heard of the contest. Having said that, she points to

Michetti’s house, adding “she’s always the winner anyways. She takes pride in it, does it for her grandchildren–so I’d nominate her.”

According to Meg Retz, Outreach Chair of the LoMo Civic Association, the four-year-old Holiday Decorating Contest has provided “an opportunity for outreach” and fosters “friendly competition,” but also aims to highlight “that interesting and unique thing about our neighborhood.” The contest is only the tip of the decorating world iceberg: many people living in LoMo don’t know about it.

Often, residents of LoMo’s rowhouses stick to the decorating traditions of their blocks. The cooperative method used by neighbors on Wolf Street between 12th and 13th is widespread because it is rooted in South Philadelphian Italian tradition.

A man named Andy from Daly Street explains some technicalities: “everyone has to participate to keep the lights up on Wolf street every year; I know six or seven of the houses have to get together to maintain them every year as well.”

In a Metro article a reporter, Alexandra Wigglesworth, quotes a resident of 13th Street between Tasker and Morris as he discusses how six younger male residents string lights between the street’s houses annually, according to input and ideas from the entire block. Joan Sloan, a resident of different block on Wolf Street, notes that families on Percy Street also practice the tradition. Though houses on blocks like these often compete, the overall attitude toward holiday decorating is one of working together.

According to Andrew Liemon, a young resident whose father is an architect, the ‘cooperative’ phenomenon is a means of maximizing a minimum amount of space. Liemon moved from Indonesia to the United States, and has lived in LoMo for 11 years. These days, he often works with neighbors to decorate his “row of five to 10 houses” around Christmastime, though an absence of houses across the street makes it impossible to connect any lights.

“The limitation of being in this urban setting as it is…there’s really not much you can do. But living closer to your neighbors brings you closer to the community. So the only way is to put something together, in terms of the block, with the neighborhood. It’s kind of like a community block project; it’s like a pride. Being creative, trying to maximize the minimum space that you have,” he says.

In Liemon’s opinion, South Philadelphia’s close quarters help promote interactions between new and long-time residents — whether they like it or not. He describes the neighborhood’s demographics as “predominantly white Italian,” but also “very diverse,” adding that since the year 2000, when he moved to the neighborhood, he’s noticed an influx of Nepali, Hispanic, and Cambodian immigrants. He and other members of his church are currently making efforts to welcome the Nepali residents, who mostly live on 7th street.

A week has passed, and many residents of LoMo are gearing up toward a neighborhood party, at which the Decorating Contest winners will be announced. Photos of all 24 candidate houses are posted on the Civic Association’s website, and voting has already begun. Of all the decorated houses, one is particularly elaborate: 922 Wolf Street.

To find this house, walk to Wolf Street from Snyder Avenue. Pass Danceadelphia, where decorations complement the energy

922 Wolf Street

inside the studio as Douglas and his teachers encourage tiny students to move to the music.

On Wolf Street, take a left past Bomb Bomb BBQ Grill, where wreaths cover doors and windows and Christmas music plays loudly. Further down the street, notice the icicle lights hanging from the roof of EZ-Tech and, nearby at Los Gallos Mexican Restaurant, the rainbow lights intermingled with Mexican paper banners.

The house at 922 Wolf Street appears as it does in the pictures. Though no lights connect the houses nearby, this particular residence is bright enough to light up the whole block. White rope lights frame the edges, windows and doors, and a large red-and-green electric tree ornament, topped by a gold star, shines from between the top two windows. Bright electric ornaments, including a train and white Angry Bird Christmas wreaths, hang in various places between the upper and lower windows. Colored lights peak out from inside the windows, and cover a small tree outside. The exhibit is guarded by an army of inflatable snowmen, a Christmas tree, and a “Santa’s mailbox.” From somewhere, Christmas music plays merrily.

The owner of the house is Penny Sloan, an elderly woman. Her son, she says, sets up the lights every year for the pleasure of his children. The Civic Association asked the family to join the Holiday Contest, but whether or not they win is of little importance to them.

Penny Sloan’s daughter, Joan Sloan, soon joins her mother outside for a cigarette.

She looks around at the decorations and grins. “Makes you feel like a kid,” she remarks. But what excites her most is something few people know: that there are more decorations inside the house. “People think only the outside is decorated – they don’t realize it’s the inside, too!” she says, repeating the line several times.

While the Sloans take pride in their decorations, they value them most as part of a means of keeping the family together.

Inside the house, at the far end of the living room, is one of the family’s most precious ornaments: a wooden nativity scene from Italy passed down through Penny Sloan’s family. According to the younger Ms. Sloan, her mother is the last member of her family alive. And since they moved to the neighborhood 25 years ago, many close neighbors have died or moved away.

For these reasons the Sloans make Christmas family time, inviting all 25 members over to their house for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. They make things cheery. Every December, 922 Wolf Street becomes a close-knit, cozy bubble on the block they hardly recognize anymore.

But, perhaps not a bubble—they are pleased to see strangers. And when they say goodbye, they offer a candy cane from their Christmas tree: that is their tradition.