December 21, 2014
For me there is no place like Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. I grew up in this neighborhood and when I have time I go back to visit St. Bernadette’s Shrine Church. Afterwards I walk through the streets where so much happened and where many good times were had with my best friends during Junior High School and High School. My maternal and paternal Grandparents lived here as well as many relatives on both sides of the family, too.
When I was growing up Dyker Heights was like a secret hidden away. Very few people outside of the immediate area knew much about it unless they’d grown up there. It was well known amongst the Italian-American community as a place with good bakeries and great Italian restaurants. As a child my favorite bakeries were Your Baker and Mona Lisa. The Italian restaurant my paternal Aunt favored was Romano’s on 13th Avenue near 70th Street. While I loved their food there was nobody who could cook Italian the way my maternal Grandma Josie Muro Serrapede could. Christmas Eve at her house was a feast filled with a dinner called “Frutta del Mar” which means fruit of the sea. An abundance of seafood like squid, octopus, clams, and shrimps was served. This would be accompanied by pasta and a salad. Dessert consisted of demitasse and a confection called struffoli, which is a type of honeyball combined with sprinkles and candied cherries and orange peel.
This was followed by midnight mass at Regina Pacis Church. After mass a small group might return to my Grandparents’ house for another hour of conversation accompanied by an Italian liqueur like Strega, Sambucca or Amaretto.
Sleep would come, deep and peaceful. On Christmas morning all of Dyker Heights would be still, calm and oh-so-very-quiet. If there was snow you could almost think there would be a Santa Claus and if you were more inclined you’d believe that the Christ child was at work in the world once more bringing hope and wonder back to our lives.
It is the memory of these events and people that keep me rooted very deeply in the borough where I was born. The history of this borough and New York City are also my history. In these streets and communities past and present I connect and take meaning in my life.
These are some of the thoughts that come to my mind as I walk the streets of Dyker Heights to experience the wonder of the Christmas lights on display. I say experience because it is more than a passive intake to me. And unlike a tourist seeking out a novelty or an amusement I find something very deep and moving in the efforts the residents make to share their joy so freely with others.
A soft rain was falling after sunset when I walked from Bay Ridge to Dyker Heights on Friday, December 5th, 2014. As much as I tried, there were times when droplets of water were blown by the wind onto the lens of my camera. Yet the photos of the houses glowing in the darkening night came out alright. There was an intensity to the lights the closer I came to 82nd Street near St. Bernadette’s Church. Yet even the more modest displays of lights in the blocks I had previously come from had a beauty all their own. I do not commit to memory which house is on which street whenever I go to view the lights. Instead I let the spirit of the experience guide me first up one block then down another. Sometimes I cross a street, go all along that side, cross to the side I was on before and walk back. The homes and decorations look different each time and I am no longer in this world but a place of happiness in which only the present moment exists. I hope you get a glimpse of this special feeling, too. This corner house on 12th Avenue was the first one to greet me as I entered Dyker Heights. Everything a child associates with the visit of Santa Claus was on display. At this house Santa was bringing the toys, candy canes and gifts by train. This festive display was placed above the garage of one home. This home has a very pretty appeal given by the twinkling lights and the way in which the lanterns glow as the night darkens. These smaller homes gain extra glow by stringing twinkling or colored lights on the shrubbery and Christmas trees in the front garden. When viewed through the close-up lens of a camera the lights on display become even more otherworldly. Here a tree decked out with red twinkling lights appears almost like a galaxy of stars. The light displays become bolder and more brilliant as I neared 12th Avenue and 82nd Street. The mini-mansions are clustered around this area. Their displays are sometimes over the top but the ones I saw this night were well thought out. The figures were all in proportion and there was not the kind of cheapening caused by inflatable plastic figures like I had seen in previous years. Close-up of one of the mini-mansions featured in the previous photo. I do not know what poodles have to do with Christmas but they do look impressive amongst all the trimmings over the doorway and on the trees. This mini-mansion, like many in Dyker Heights, has it’s own fountain. In the summer time some homeowners put up signs stating that the fountain or pond is supplied with water from a well on the property. The decoration which looks like a frozen cascade of water and projects from the fountain created a stunning effect.I wondered if any children lived in these homes and if they would be able to sleep given how enchanting the homes look. I was reminded of fairy stories where children could be led astray and bedazzled by the world of the fey. Here I saw ordinary homes transformed into something more. I think what I saw and felt was a bit of the creative spirit in which the homeowner is expressing themselves and their desire to share this happiness and child-like wonder with neighbors and visitors. I passed by two mini-mansions where Nutcracker and Toy Soldiers kept guard at the entrance. These homes had clusters of tourists and photographers lingering all around. I understood their desire to take it all in. This home preferred little elves in the garden along with garlands around the front pillars. The elves reminded me of the characters Snap, Crackle and Pop from the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies box! This Santa with his reindeer is one of the pretties I’ve seen in Dyker Heights. I think it is the presence of the gazebo and lighted shrubbery that add to the beauty. Also everything is very well proportioned. I am always amazed at the extent to which the homeowners go to create a beautiful scene. On the night I went, some homes were still preparing for the display. There were workmen putting up angels or Christmas trees while others were affixing wreaths to doors and windows. Even without figures the right combination of colors and lights give a home an entirely different aspect as night time deepens. The light display really elevated me to a very special level of awareness when I saw, all of a sudden, these ornaments suspended from the bare branches of a tree. They looked otherworldly in the increasing darkness. I had lost track of time and thought it was best for me to get centered, grounded and ready to go home. The drizzle resumed as the chimes of St. Bernadette’s announced the 6 o’clock hour. I had been in this state of joy for over an hour and walked without thinking towards the Church. I reviewed the photos already taken and was glad that at least one of the nativity scenes had made for a good photo. The rain had ruined a few of the other scenes but this one remained serene and appropriate to the season of Advent which was upon us as we awaited Christmas