Soon after Rose and Aaron Harris bought their Tacony home four years ago, a neighbor stopped by. His first question on that warm fall afternoon? "Do you do Christmas?"
"I said, 'Yeah, sure. We'll do Christmas. We'll put some lights up,' " Aaron Harris recalled.
Fast-forward to a Saturday morning a few months later. The Harrises were nestled in their new home - all snug in their bed, as it were - when they heard the loud buzz of a drill.
Away to the window, Aaron flew like a flash.
And what to their wondering eyes should appear? A group of neighbors, with a ladder, drilling holes in their house. For the Christmas lights, of course.
"I pulled the blinds shut and said, 'Well, I guess we agreed to this,' " Harris said. "We just didn't know what we were getting ourselves into."
If you want to live happily on the 4200 block of Greeby Street, it helps if you "do Christmas." For the last 19 years, neighbors there have shown their spirit with elaborate displays that rival Clark Griswold's wildest dreams. That means lots and lots of lighting - outlining the majority of the houses, sparkling on figures on lawns, glistening on decor in windows and on doors - and lots and lots of plastic: figurines, inflatables, and moving displays.
"When it started, it was just the first three houses, and it just kept going," said Mark Stabler, the block's unofficial mayor, lead decorator, and the "Head Crazy," in wife Colette's words. "The work starts the day after Halloween, and it gets tiring, weekend after weekend from Nov. 1 to mid-December," Stabler said. "But my kids won't let me give it up."
About 35 houses on both sides of this one-block stretch have since joined the holiday party. They do this, the neighbors say, because it's fun and festive. Drawing hundreds of visitors from across the region, they use the attention to do good deeds, holding an annual toy drive that has collected an increasing amount of gifts and money every season. They enjoy huddling together on cold nights and watching strangers delight in their displays.
Christmas is about establishing and nurturing the bonds between family and friends, they say. To those who wonder how blinking colored lights and a giant inflatable M&M in a red cap can contribute to that, repeat visitor Christopher Heileman had a simple answer: "Tradition."
Heileman and girlfriend Dana Tomeo discovered the 4200 block last year, taking a photo together under a lighted arch that has become a favorite. This year, they returned on a warm weeknight with Heileman's 4-year-old son, Hunter, who ran up and down the sidewalk, clutching a candy cane. A long line of cars slowly moved along the street beside them. (Two years ago, the city agreed to change the narrow street from one with two-way traffic to a one-way street, ending years of midblock conflicts between visitors.)
"We understand the meaning of Christmas," Heileman said. "There's nothing like bringing [Hunter] out here on a night like this."
Added Tomeo, "Life can be so busy. You have to stop and enjoy the moments."
Nonetheless, a handful of homeowners kept their yards dark this year, and Stabler ticked off a few reasons: Non-Christians. Older couple who don't want holes in their house. Man who hates the traffic the displays draw. New family yet to be indoctrinated.
"When the corner house was for sale, the ad said you had to love Christmas to be on our street," Stabler said. "It's how they sold that house."
The real estate and neighborhood news website Curbed.com still carries an article from last December featuring a photo of the brick three-bedroom, two-bath in its holiday finest, and the headline "Corner House on Christmas-Crazed Block Lists for $119,000." The house sold in September, and the new owner has embraced the holiday.
"She went crazy on the yard and the windows," Stabler said.
But crazy is in the eye of the beholder. His own front yard is covered with more than a dozen figures, including his wife's beloved collection of characters from the Island of Misfit Toys, first featured in the 1964 stop-motion animation special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Colette Stabler said the interior of their home was just as elaborate.
"Everything's outlined, garlands everywhere," she said. "I had to do the inside because he does the outside."
Most homeowners tend to add at least one or two new elements to their displays each year, she said. She calls her husband and neighbors such as Ron Connor and John Grodziski "crazies" because "they like to get six or seven."
Grodziski, the neighbor who knocked on the Harrises' door four years ago, doesn't agree. Still, it's difficult to imagine where he could squeeze even one more thing onto his property, which is jammed with a moving Ferris wheel, seesaw, and carnival swing ride, among other items.
"People keep telling me I buy too much," said Grodziski, who built a shed behind his house to store his decor. "I don't think I buy enough."
The Harrises' home is outlined in lights - those 30 holes from that original drilling are still being put to good use - and their lawn is dominated by a handful of hand-cut, white-painted wooden figures depicting a Nativity scene.
"I think of it as a palette cleanser," Rose Harris said. "We break it up."
Aaron Harris said he had made one or two carvings annually - this year, two sheep joined the manger. Unlike his neighbors, he likes to keep things simple.
That's why neighbor Marisa Stabler, 13, waited until Harris had gone to the grocery store before adding a light-up donkey to his lawn, one he can't remove because his toddler daughter, Willow, loves to "feed" it.
Harris wondered what the future would hold for his yard. Even if he adds just one woodcut figure each year, those will add up quickly.
"Imagine what it's going to look like when we've been here 15 years," he said. "It's going to be intense."