Holidays in Philly

Pandemic dims but can’t deter South Philly’s ‘Miracle on 13th Street’ holiday lights

To residents, key parts of the 15-year tradition are missing, but decorations still shine bright.

Not all the bulbs are working, but the lights are on at 13th and Tasker

Not all the bulbs are working, but the lights are on at 13th and Tasker

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

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Sean Ferrarini’s house is always bright this time of year. He takes holiday decorations seriously — you’ve got to, when you live on the block known as The Miracle on South 13th Street.

The 33-year-old moved to the 1600 block of South 13th Street with his wife three Christmases ago. Since then he’s cultivated an enthusiastic Grinch theme. Whoville residents hang around outside his front door, and the green beast himself is perched atop the rowhome, appearing to steal lights and presents.

This year, the wooden figures are all wearing masks. And that’s not the only thing that’s changed.

To onlookers, the block still probably looks like magic: a majority of houses are enveloped in twinkling lights and surrounded by Santas and snowmen. But to residents, key parts of the 15-year-old tradition are notably absent, and the street doesn’t feel like it usually does.

“It’s not the same,” Ferrarini said. “Part of what makes it so great is hanging out with your neighbors and doing it together. Now we’re like, yelling across the street at each other.”

The 13th Street residents between Tasker and Morris thought about calling off the tradition altogether. Ferrarini said they worried about encouraging people to walk down their wonderland during what might be the most dangerous period of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ultimately, they decided the show must go on — albeit a scaled-back version.

“Because of what’s going on with COVID, we wanted neighbors to be safe,” said Alex Du, 43, who helped develop this tradition 15 years ago. “We have a lot of elderly people that still live on the street.”

Masked Whos at the 2020 Miracle on South 13th Street display

Masked Whos at the 2020 Miracle on South 13th Street display

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Normally, the process of turning one block into a holiday light show requires a lot of in-person coordination.

It begins with a planning meeting in September, then comes together the Saturday after Thanksgiving when all the neighbors decorate together. It usually culminates in a block party and weekend events through December, including visits from Santa.

Neighbors go all out. They rent a bucket truck to hang uniform string lights along all the rowhomes on the block. They wrap the light posts in red and white to make them look like candy canes, and allow local businesses to purchase signs to advertise on the polls.

But the long-refined process unraveled this year. There was no in-person planning meeting, and residents agreed to hang their lights independently.

There are no uniform string lights, and the light posts are bare. Some bulbs on The Miracle on South 13th Street sign are out, because neighbors didn’t rent the bucket truck to screw in fresh ones.

And a few houses are totally dark, because their elderly inhabitants couldn’t manage to put up lights on their own — and others didn’t want to risk transmitting the virus to them.

“The block is kind of tempered,” Du said. “We couldn’t get together to get it all accomplished. It’s been a lot different, but the block is still bright.”

Still bright is an understatement. Although a disappointing imitation to some residents, the 2020 iteration of The Miracle on South 13th Street can still live up to its name where outsiders are concerned. Most of the houses are glamorous as ever. Even better, Ferrarini said, onlookers have respected pandemic rules

“It’s definitely been more cars than people this year,” Ferrarini said. “I’ve felt like everyone I’ve seen has been wearing a mask and respecting each other.”

Worst case, if Ferrarini saw people breathing down each other’s necks to peep his holiday cheer, he said he’d just unplug the lights to diffuse them.

Meantime, all the pent up energy on their South Philly block will likely inspire a huge display for the 2021 holiday season.

“I’m glad we could make it work in a semi-less-exciting way,” Ferrarini said. “But I think next year, we’re going to have to make it even better.”

Want some more? Explore other Holidays in Philly stories.

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