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City Sidewalks, Busy Sidewalks

The sky was too dreary, the temperature too high. But on the day before Christmas in Philadelphia, holiday spirit shone through, overcoming the elements and connecting people to one another and the traditions they count on.

Rain and umbrellas were the order of the day on Christmas Eve in Center City and City Hall. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )
Rain and umbrellas were the order of the day on Christmas Eve in Center City and City Hall. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer )Read more

The sky was too dreary, the temperature too high.

But on the day before Christmas in Philadelphia, holiday spirit shone through, overcoming the elements and connecting people to one another and the traditions they count on.

What follows are snapshots from a warm and luminous Christmas Eve:

Just hours before sundown, Walter Flamm Jr. was buying jewelry. But this was no desperate Santa on Jewelers' Row.

This was a husband in love. An enchanted spouse doing what he does every Christmas Eve for a woman he has called wife for more than 42 years: buying a dazzling token of adoration for a woman he loves more deeply with each passing year. This year's bauble was a sparkling, cushion emerald ring in a diamond halo setting.

For Betty.

"My wonderful, lovely, patient, ever-suffering bride," Flamm called her. "Without her, I would be nothing."

The Blue Bell lawyer has come a long way since taking Betty out on their first date to a Roxborough-area carnival so grubby he still remembers being mortified.

He shops for Betty the day before Christmas because it has come to feel special. It is Walter's very own tradition.

"Every year, if I don't see him on the 24th, I think, 'God forbid, something's happened to him,' " Safian & Rudolph Jewelers owner Hy Goldberg said after tucking Betty's ring into a gift box. - Maria Panaritis

The skating rink at Dilworth Park glimmered especially bright Wednesday morning, the ice clear as glass.

A few inches of water will do that.

The Zamboni, taking a swirl around the rink a few minutes before the 11 a.m. opening, created a wake in its path. Passersby stopped to peer in.

"A lot of puddles," one said.

"It's a pool," said another.

"It's more of a pond," a third offered.

None opted for a swim. Or for a skate.

Though most people passing through City Hall were scurrying to some place drier, the rain couldn't dissuade some parents from posing their kids beside the courtyard's glistening 35-foot tree. Kids angled their umbrellas so no faces would be blocked. Others dropped their cover to the side, braving a few raindrops for the perfect - albeit soggy - shot.

At the rink, 6-year-old Kate Hammond jumped into her mother's arms so she could see over the barriers. Kate and her parents, Tara and Bob, along with 9-year-old Bobby, had taken the train in from Rosemont for the day. And though a skate would have been lovely, they were perfectly happy on their way to a Nutcracker matinee.

"We were hoping for a white Christmas," their mother said, looking upward.

No skating this year, but Kate did get in a few good splashes, jumping into puddles with her pink rain boots. - Tricia L. Nadolny

At midday, the historic sanctuary at Christ Church in Old City was a calm antidote to what was going on outside: the bustle of buses and cars, last-minute present buyers, and people making their way home for the holiday.

A small knot of faithful gathered in the sacred space just off Second and Market Streets for a simple midday service - no music or candlelight, just quiet anticipation, and meditation on the words that underpin the holiday: "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light."

Lauren and Conan Graham, visitors from San Francisco, were out shopping and sightseeing when they happened upon the church and wandered in to find the sanctuary full of poinsettias, wreaths, and bows, and the service about to begin.

"It was beautiful," Lauren Graham said. - Kristen A. Graham

If South Philly is a blunt-talking, blue-collar cousin and Northern Liberties a hip buddy from the pub, then Chestnut Hill is a tasteful aunt, all decorous clothes and genteel attitude.

More an independent village than an urban neighborhood, Chestnut Hill buzzed with understated verve on Christmas Eve.

Shoppers who all seemed to know one another cheerily bounced from one boutique to the next, trying to decide whether delicately blown glass ornaments or batik wall art or an improbably expensive cheese grater would be the proper last-minute gift.

"The people we see here are world travelers," said Laura Cohn, helping a friend sell art in a gallery. "They're friendly and diverse."

Lined with cobblestones, Germantown Avenue, which bisects the neighborhood, was Dickens-worthy Wednesday, its streetlamps garlanded with red ribbons.

"At Christmas," said Michael Tracy, a gallery salesman, "Chestnut Hill is a friendly, intimate place." - Alfred Lubrano

Buying a Christmas tree on Christmas Eve on North Broad Street across from the former Joe Frazier Gym has been a tradition for Kenneth Boone and his family.

Boone, his ex-wife, and his daughter rolled up in a gray Chrysler Town and Country minivan Wednesday afternoon, and he was greeted by India John and Courtney Newman, who were working the 10 a.m.-to-10 p.m. shift, selling trees above the rumble of the Broad Street subway. By midafternoon, the pair had already sold 12 trees. The price starts at $25, but that was negotiable.

"We work with people. If they only have $15, we'll take it," John said. "Nobody leaves without a tree."

Boone paid $20 for his tree, which barely topped 5 feet.

"Downsize every year," Boone said. "The kids get big, that's it." - Robert Moran

The cavernous corridors of City Hall were mostly quiet Wednesday. But in the offices of City Council, the phones were ringing.

Constituent calls never end.

There were the standard inquiries about overdue electric bills and the holiday trash-pickup schedule. But on the day before Christmas, there were other significant tasks at hand.

One caller to Councilman William K. Greenlee's office was looking for help with gifts for her children. Verna Brown-Tyner, his chief of staff, had the name of a nonprofit at the ready.

Another person rang for help finding food for their family's Christmas dinner. Brown-Tyner recommended a grocery store she thought might be able to help.

"We want to make sure people get what they need," she said. "We try to go ahead and make some extra calls." - Tricia L. Nadolny

Around Chinatown, restaurants and markets Wednesday prepped for a busy day ahead.

In the dimly lighted dining room at the Imperial Inn at 10th and Race Streets, On Tseng straightened chairs and folded napkins at 10:45 a.m. before the start of business. He called it the calm before the storm.

Tseng has 150 reservations for Christmas Eve and nearly 200 for Christmas Day. He said he would get people from all different backgrounds. The common denominator? No traditional turkey or ham dinner tied to the holiday, and an appetite for good Chinese food.

"Everyone comes in. We'll be full," said Tseng, whose father founded the restaurant 41 years ago.

Eleven cooks and 15 servers are ready for the Christmas Day crowd. They will serve close to 4,000 meals and keep two dining rooms humming.

The restaurant's biggest day is actually Mother's Day, Tseng said, followed by Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Chinese New Year, which is Feb. 19 this year.

A block away, Steve Young, 30, a server and cook at Spice C Hand Drawn Noodle, set up 30 pounds of dough in the kitchen. The restaurant expected ing to cook up about 150 pounds of dough for its noodle dishes on Christmas Day. "Tomorrow's going to be nonstop," said Young. "We're going to be packed."

It takes a lot of muscle to hand-pull the noodles, he said.

"We'll have two guys working, and they'll need to switch in and out when they get tired. I'm going to make sure I get a lot of sleep tonight." - Julia Terruso

The rain did not keep people from getting to Reading Terminal Market to get meats, desserts, and side dishes for Christmas dinners - no matter how far they had to travel.

"We've been coming here for 15 years," Vicki Haydak, of Bridgeton, Cumberland County, said while buying cannolis at Termini Bros.

Termini manager Denise Baldwin said the stand would sell about 10,000 cannolis by the end of the day, adding: "It's a big part of Philadelphia Christmas tradition."

Those who were hoping to score some Italian cookies, however, left disappointed.

"They're out of my favorite, pignoli cookies, the pine nut ones," said Vince Lusciani, who had come from Rehoboth, Del.

His sister-in-law Julie Schaub bought six cannolis instead. - Claudia Vargas