It may not be the most traditional of lullabies, but the children on Tropical Street in Pasadena don’t seem to have trouble this time of year falling asleep to the strains of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer.”
Of course they don’t have much choice. The melody plays every six minutes as the theme song for a display of lights and motorized figures decorating the lawn of Michael Moorrees, who lives at 1210 Tropical.
On the Moorrees front lawn, a feisty, plywood grandma waves from beneath a reindeer-drawn sleigh. Nearby, three wise men carrying a sign that reads “Bethlehem or Bust” are pushing a reluctant camel. And an endless tape loop broadcasts music to passers-by.
Prizes for Best Displays
In some neighborhoods such elaborate decorations would seem unusual, but in the Upper Hastings Ranch area of Pasadena, they are practically the norm. For more than 30 years, residents have put together showy Christmas displays on their houses and in their yards, competing for prizes awarded by the Upper Hastings Ranch Neighborhood Assn.
Prizes are awarded for best use of lights, for best humor or fantasy display, and for best religious display. Three awards are given in each category. A judges’ trophy is presented to the best-decorated house, and any child who puts up decorations is given the Snoopy award. In addition about 14 parkway awards are given to particularly well-decorated blocks.
The tradition began in the early 1950s on Denair Street, where Mark Roy moved in 1953. “It began as just a bunch of neighbors in our block doing something nice for Christmas,” Roy said. “Then it grew from our street to other streets and pretty soon the whole neighborhood was decorated.”
In subsequent years, the decorating process became formalized, and today more than 1,150 houses and 44 blocks participate. Each block has a captain who calls a meeting sometime during the fall. Residents of each block decide on a standard decoration to be put up in front of each participating house on the block. In addition, residents plan their own decorations for their yards and houses.
Helping One Another
Between the fall meeting and Christmas, neighbors help one another make decorations and put them up. “It really brings the neighbors together,” said long-time resident Peggy Nagy who lives down the street from Roy. “We all help one another out. There’s a real sense of neighborhood here.”
The Upper Hastings Ranch dwellers do admit there are some problems associated with the annual illumination. “You know it’s Christmas when the first tour bus comes,” said Bob May, whose elaborate decorations include a snowman on a brick wall and a variety of Smurfs. “The traffic gets so bad up here with all the people looking at the lights, that last year my brother had to stop traffic for me to get the car out of the driveway.” Some residents say it can take as long as a half-hour to drive six blocks.
But, May said, the advantages of the light-up far outweigh the disadvantages. “We moved up here specifically for the Christmas decorating,” he said. “My wife had been up here and, when we were looking for a house, she wanted to buy here so she could put up Christmas lights every year.”
May’s wife is apparently not alone. Coldwell Banker real estate agent Stella Szollosy said this time of year is a great time to sell a house in the area. “The decorations are a real advantage. We get a lot of calls from people who drive up to see the lights and notice a house for sale. It’s like free advertising. Unfortunately, we only have a couple of houses listed up there.”
Some Houses Dark
Not all Upper Hastings Ranch residents are as enthusiastic about the light-up. Dow Rogers has lived in the area for more than 10 years and until this year has always put up decorations. This year, his house is dark, and he’s not displaying his block’s standard decoration--a dove bearing the words “Christmas, God’s Gift of Love.” “There are six of us in a row on this street who don’t decorate,” Rogers said. “Last year my decorations were stolen. I’ve also had rocks and oranges thrown into my yard. This year I decided not to participate.”
He also is bothered by the formalized nature of the decorating in his neighborhood. “I don’t see why we have to all be like sheep. It’s rather expensive for the decorations, and I might like to put up something different,” he said.
Harry Tashjian, whose Valley View Avenue house is one of the few darkened houses on his block, has religious objections to the light-up. “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and we don’t believe in celebrating Christmas,” he said. “Besides, we believe Jesus was born in October.”
But Tashjian said his neighbors are understanding. “We have a block captain who wanted me to decorate,” he said, “but when we explained our point of view, he didn’t press. He was very courteous.”
Not all those who don’t celebrate Christmas share Tashjian’s feelings about decorating. The Schweitzer family of 1180 Tropical Street is Jewish, but that doesn’t stop them from setting up an elaborate display.
The Schweitzers’ front lawn is draped with blue and white lights (the colors of Hanukkah), and waist-high dradels or tops decorate the lawn. A “Happy Chanukah” sign is attached to the front-yard tree.
Jeff Schweitzer, 20, who has taken over the family’s decorating chores from his father, said his family loves the neighborhood custom. “This is really a celebration of the time of year. There’s a general feeling of good will in the neighborhood that extends to everybody regardless of religion,” he said.
On several occasions, the Schweitzers received awards in the religious category for their Hanukkah decorations, but last year was something of a disappointment. “We had made brand-new decorations and were expecting an award, but the night of the judging, we had a power failure,” Schweitzer said.
But most residents of Upper Hastings Ranch, including Schweitzer, agree that despite things like occasional power failures and crowds and disruption, the annual light-up is the high point of the year.
“We have become a tourist attraction like Disneyland or Yellowstone,” said Stan Elman, vice president of the Upper Hastings Ranch Assn. “I feel great about that. It means we’re reaching a lot of people, and the whole object of all this is to spread Christmas cheer.”