Baltimore’s Hampden Neighborhood offers some miraculous decorations over the holidays
“Oh, Christmas isn’t just a day. It’s a frame of mind…That’s why I’m glad I’m here, maybe I can do something about it,” Kris Kringle tells Doris Walker in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Doris is a Christmas cynic, so Kringle makes it his mission to bring the cheer and hope of the holiday season to her and her daughter Susan.
Kringle’s line could also be the motto for another Miracle on 34th Street: the 700 block of 34th street in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood, which takes the nickname from the classic movie.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the seemingly regular row-houses transform into a winter wonderland of lights, inflatable lawn ornaments, handmade decorations, and Christmas trees. During the official lighting of Miracle on 34th Street, strings of bulbs connecting one side of the street to the other flicker on, and the houses shine in their custom glory, bringing holiday cheer to the whole neighborhood.
The brightest house award goes to Bob and Darlene Hosier, who both grew up on the block and started the tradition. Darlene’s family bought the house in 1947 and always decorated for Christmas, but when Darlene and Bob married and moved into the house in 1982, Bob admits he started going a little crazy.
He’s always been a big fan of Christmas, and how could he not decorate his house when the block he lives on shares a name with one of the most famous Christmas movies of all time and one of Darlene’s favorite movies? When he strung lights across the street in 1991, the more formal Miracle on 34th Street was born.
Some houses have a theme, which doesn’t have to be about Christmas. Hillary Strilko was the first Jewish resident on the block and dedicated her decorations to her dog, Roo, who was diagnosed with cancer her first holiday season.
“Rather than be reminded of the sadness of losing him each year, I started a cocoa and cookies fundraiser in his honor,” she says.
When you walk the street, make sure to bring some cash the goodies at “The Dog House,” where proceeds are donated to The Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter (BARCS). In the past eight years, Strilko has raised $10,000 to donate to BARCS and other animal rescue organizations.
Recent neighbors Joshua Lamont and Jillian Porter have designed what’s come to be known as the “Chanukah House,” complete with an inflatable polar bear holding a dreidel and blue and white lights galore. Other notable decorations not to be missed include a Christmas tree made of hubcaps (which, yes, does stay there all year long), the Natty Boh man and Utz girl, a palm tree with fronds of different lights, a flock of pink flamingos, and a blue crab outlined in lights.
Throughout the month, Miracle on 34th Street becomes the highlight of the neighborhood and home to lots of events, with different takes on the holiday season. For those who want a classic Christmas, the first Sunday in December is the Mayor’s Christmas Parade, which ends just blocks from 34th Street, just before the lights to turn on.
For those seeking Baltimore kitsch, women dressed as Hons (the beehive-donning, tacky-dressed treasures) take over the street for the annual Hon Photo Shoot. For those who want a creepier, old European ideal of Christmas, the more recent Krampus Parade, complete with people dressed as man-goats doling out punishments to the bad children, also ends at 34th Street. On weekend nights, the sheet is shut down to car traffic, and the best way to see the lights is by parking on a nearby street, and parking is usually easier south of 34th Street.
On New Year’s Eve, the last night of the lights, the Hosier’s house also becomes the home of Baltimore’s very own Times-Square-style ball-drop. If we’re looking for another parallel to the Miracle on 34th Street film, then Bob Hosier would be Kris Kringle, except he doesn’t dress up like Santa Claus; his persona of choice is Baby New Year.
“My wife’s always wanted to go to New York City to see the ball drop, but couldn’t make it,” says Bob. So, in 1988, he decided to make his own festivities with a ball of lights dropping in his front yard, and he wears diaper and baby bonnet costume to joyfully ring in the New Year.
Over the years, the New Year’s Eve celebration has grown from people in the neighborhood watching the ball drop as a stop on their party-going to a huge gathering where the entire block is packed with people from Baltimore, Maryland, and the whole country.
“The first year it was just 9 people, and over the years, it’s become the place to be,” Bob says. “Now people recognize me as Baby New Year. It’s incredible.”
For the Hosiers and many of the neighbors, the most important thing is that this tradition is something they do together to celebrate the season and bring the spirit of the season to the neighborhood. Hillary Strilko says she loves living on the block because of the camaraderie decorating brings, and “that everyone is so generous to create this holiday present for all of Baltimore.”