The famed Christmas lights of Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, are undeniably striking. But to some observers, they may also seem a bit excessive. Take it from “Cousin Paula,” our agreeably sassy, wholly borough-appropriate guide on A Slice of Brooklyn's Christmas Lights & Cannoli Tour.
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As our coach bus pulled away from its first stop—the more modest light displays of Bay Ridge—toward the main attraction, she said: “You just saw the Gucci lights. Now I'll show you the Ed Hardy lights.”
The humble lights of Bay Ridge. Photo: Marley White
Yes, Dyker Heights' luminous displays are every bit as flashy as The Situation's favorite T-shirt brand. We're talking life-size Dickensian carolers, lit-up bear-shaped topiaries and a 14-foot-tall, 800-pound animatronic Santa Claus. Some of them are erected and maintained by professionals, including electricians and landscaping companies who, Tony says, “realized that there was no work during the holidays.”
Dickens meets Disney: animatronic carolers. Photo: Marley White
It's easy to kid about the scale and cost of the displays. Still, once you look past all the wattage—and, we know, it might take awhile—there's much more to the neighborhood tradition than gaudiness, braggadocio and a desire to win the holiday-spirit arms race.
“You see lights,” explains Tony Muia, Paula's cousin and the tour company's founder. “We see stories.”
Those stories reveal that the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights are a way for residents to share their love of the holidays, to connect with the community and to help causes that are important to them. Even if, as Paula puts it, Bay Ridge has the “Meryl Streep lights” to Dyker Heights' “Lindsay Lohan lights.” (Paula tells a lot of jokes.)
Take, for example, Lucy Spata's house, the home that started it all.
Lucy Spata's house. Photo: Marley White
According to Paula, Lucy first put up the famous display in the 1980s, after her mother died. The abundance of angel imagery is meant to honor her memory. Today, as throngs marvel at the lights, Lucy's nephews patrol the area—dressed as Frosty and Elmo—collecting donations for charity.
“Some people,” says Tony, “joke around that they're collecting money for their electricity bill.” But he assures us that the residents of this wealthy neighborhood “don't have to worry about paying their electric bills,” even if their lawn does feature a candy-cane Ferris wheel and a pair of Nutcracker-esque toy soldiers that “you need cranes to lift.”
Originally, Lucy's lights were not exactly a hit—some of her neighbors complained. But she persisted, and soon almost everyone in Dyker Heights joined in.
Then there's the late Al Polizzotto, the man responsible for the colossal animated Santa Claus we mentioned earlier. Tony says that Al commissioned the piece during his fight with cancer, hoping to share some joy with the neighborhood and its children. He contacted designer Lou Nasti, who brought the holiday icon to life. It's all part of a lawn filled with “toyland”-themed decorations including a carousel and a pair of mechanized horses that, according to Paula, each weigh a ton.
The 14-foot-tall, 800-pound Santa commissioned by the late Al Polizzotto. Photo: Marley White
The Santa is outfitted with a camera—so that its operator can see who's approaching it—and a speaker, so that he can talk to them.
Polizzotto and his gesture meant a lot to the neighborhood. “When he passed away,” Tony remembers, “all the lights in Dyker Heights went black for one night.”
Another well-known personality in Dyker Heights is “Sam the Greek.” In a neighborhood full of over-the-top Christmas displays, his may just take the fruitcake. Paula reports that it's loaded with somewhere between 240,000 and 260,000 lights; Sam lost count this year. And check out all those wires plugged into the side of the house. Merry Christmas, Consolidated Edison!
“Is there a free socket where I can charge my iPhone?” Photo: Marley White
The house also embodies Brooklyn's famous diversity. Naturally, there's a Greek flag out front, though Dyker Heights is known as an Italian area. An electronic sign wishes passersby “Season's Greetings” in a seemingly never-ending series of languages. And if you look closely at one of the animated snowflakes stuck to the house, you'll see a Star of David periodically lighting up inside.
Sam's house may just have the most elaborate display in Dyker Heights. Photo: Marley White
There's another tribute to Judaism: Bay Ridge's so-called “Blue Christmas” house, whose outdoor decorations are all blue in honor of the divided household—a Christian husband and a Jewish wife. Inside, we're told that half the house is decorated for Christmas, the other half for Hanukkah. Tony says that the neighborhood doesn't have any Kwanzaa or winter solstice displays yet. We're glad there's something to look forward to.
The “Blue Christmas” house. Photo: Marley White
Finally, there are decorations that step a bit outside of the usual Christmas imagery, providing a welcome change of pace in a sea of outsize Santas, candy canes and nativity scenes.
One lawn is home to an offbeat assemblage of wintry mechanical adornments including a realistic-looking polar bear and children—some of whom are ice-skating in an endless circle—clad in weathered footie pajamas.
Brooklyn can be offbeat, too. Photo: Jesse Hochkeppel
According to Paula, the man who lives at this house acquired his decorations some 20 years ago from a defunct Macy's display. He puts them out because he enjoys the distinctive feel they impart to the festivities. Us, too.
The final stop of the tour, Mona Lisa Bakery in Bensonhurst, offers the chance to taste some authentic Brooklyn holiday cuisine—a cannoli and cappuccino, quite the satisfying combination on a chilly evening. If you'd rather not be caffeinated, there are decaf and hot cocoa options. The dessert break is also a chance to soak in an equally important piece of Brooklyn flavor: a few final “fuhgeddaboudits” from your guide. Paula and Tony (who joined us at the last stop) both worked the room expertly as their guests dined.
Mona Lisa Bakery. Photo: Marley White
After this fitting finale, you'll return to the tour's Union Square starting point, bellies full of dessert and minds full of seasonal memories, as you watch classic TV Christmas specials on the bus. Happy Holidays!
Tony and Paula. Photo: Marley White
To make reservations on A Slice of Brooklyn's Christmas Lights & Cannoli Tour, visit the company's official website, where you can also get info about its pizza tour.