All is bright

The "Miracle on South 13th Street"

5 minute read
The miracle is revealed. (Photo by Alaina Johns)
The miracle is revealed. (Photo by Alaina Johns)

Sparing myself the whole is-he-real Santa Claus dilemma is only one benefit of having a dog instead of kids, but I realize I was probably asking a lot of her when our usual walk brought her face to face, trembling, with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

If there’s anything I’ve learned by living around the corner from South Philly’s famed Miracle on South 13th Street, it’s that I’m pretty stubborn. In the evenings, I like to walk Ginny on the 1600 block of 13th Street. Just because half the city is out oohing and ahhing at a collection of Pennsylvania-famous Christmas decorations isn’t going to make me change my dog-walking route.

Besides, I can’t lie. An eight-pound dog’s poop can be pretty hard to collect in the dark, but thanks to the Miracle, I don’t need to shine any light on the pick-up site. In fact, it’s so well lit and there are so many families strolling around that I break my usual rule and take that bedtime walk giddily iPhone free.

Feeling totally safe at night is almost enough to give me, a divorced Sunday-school refugee, some Christmas cheer.

Keeping the faith

This year’s story on the Miracle notes that the festive stretch “makes everybody a little friendlier and more polite.”

But walking there nightly, I’m convinced that city denizens’ attitudes are as varied as usual.

“That house isn’t fully decorated,” a kid about six years old said, pointing to a home on the block’s west side, whose owners had the temerity to stop at some lights in the windows. “That stinks!”

I walked the dog another night with a close friend who’s Jewish, and we speculated on what it’s like to live on the block this month if you don’t celebrate Christmas. I wonder about the folks who opted for a simple framing of their front windows in a string of lights. Clearly they are not un-festive in the general sense: they still have a string of faux autumn leaves wrapped around the bannister on their front steps.

The neighbors’ faith is not a worry for St. John’s Baptist Church at 13th and Tasker, which opined on its sign that though the election is over, “Jesus is still king!” Their nativity scene presides over the Miracle’s northeast side, but they sweeten the deal by spelling “Jesus is the reason” in lights with a candy cane for a “J.”

Ralphie and Rudolph

Still, Jesus is hard pressed to compete with the block’s clear pièce de résistance, a homage to the 1983 film A Christmas Story, featuring a life-size cutout of Ralphie in his pink rabbit suit, and of course, the iconic leg lamp in the window. In a weird mix of nostalgia and winter macabre, a light display on the front steps shows a kid, arms endlessly windmilling, with his tongue (in rosy little lights) stuck to a pole. A realistic Santa mannequin sprawls like a scarlet scarecrow near a mailbox for letters to Santa. On the house’s third floor, a giant, maniacally grinning plastic Santa head, eerily lit from the bottom, looms in one window. In the other, a ghost-like, life-sized, live-action digital projection of Santa rambling around eating cookies and stuff is also oddly unsettling.

While I walked Ginny with a date early in December, I floated my opinion of these Santas as more creepy than festive. He replied that I was “demented.”

We’re not seeing each other anymore.

There’s a similar projection in the third floor of a house on the east side: a Jim Carrey-style Grinch. I overheard one woman refusing to walk down the other side of the block, where the green specter is visible, because it’s too scary. Damn right.

Ginny and Rudolph, the eponymous ruminant. (Photo by Alaina Johns)
Ginny and Rudolph, the eponymous ruminant. (Photo by Alaina Johns)

I have my favorite spot: a small, fuzzy assemblage of characters from the classic 1964 stop-motion animated film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, including Yukon Cornelius, the Bumble, and the eponymous ruminant.

Holiday malcontents

The decorations may make the kids happy, but I’m less than impressed with some of the parenting on display. One family brought a professional photographer to document their toddler, resplendent in a gauzy little red dress — and no coat. It was probably 40 degrees out and the kid was shivering visibly, but such things don’t register next to getting the perfect photo.

Sometimes you can catch carolers (“Jingle Bell Rock” is still stuck in my head) or roving performers like the Positive Movement Drill Team, while at the block’s south end, where frustrated drivers bunch behind gawkers at the corner of 13th and Morris, the sounds are less festive.

Cries of “Come ON! LET’S GO!” and a chorus of honking horns compete with holiday standards from Elvis, Mariah Carey, and Bing Crosby. And someone left a toilet on the sidewalk next to a giant inflatable Santa-styled Mickey Mouse, an addition that remained for about five days.

Neighborhood destination

This is my neighborhood, where elderly Italian men chuckle at my Yorkie (“Hey there, killer!”), no season goes uncelebrated in the locals’ front windows, there’s a dog walker around every corner, and groups of commuters from the Broad Street Line pulse eastward every few minutes at evening rush hour.

As Christmas approaches, the sidewalk gets more and more crowded, and I don’t even try to pass by on the nights when Santa, the Grinch, and a giant, eerie gingerbread man are out embracing tipsy adult revelers in Flyers and Eagles jerseys. Come January, I won’t miss the blow-up Snoopys and grinning snowmen, the flashing lights, and the “Ho, ho, ho!” of that ghostly third-floor Santa. But until then, maybe it’s not just a matter of habit to walk there.

A couple weeks ago, strolling happily hand in hand with a (different, better) date to pick up pizza at Francoluigi’s, I noticed, too late, the grinning 6ABC cameraman dead ahead. I don’t know if we made the evening news. But if we did, we looked just like everybody else enjoying the Miracle on South 13th Street.

What, When, Where

The Miracle on South 13th Street. 13th Street between Tasker and Morris Streets, South Philadelphia. On display through January 1, 2019.

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