“Several of the neighbors came over to say hello, and within a few moments, in three conversations, we were told, ‘Welcome to the neighborhood; we decorate for Christmas,’” Paul recalls.
That tradition started with the very first residents of Sylvan Court, a cul-de-sac located off Sunlight Drive, north of Eighth Street and east of Day Street. In 1979, Bob and Marlene Gallagher became the first people to move into a new home on the street.
“We decorated our house the very first year. There were no other houses in our cul-de-sac then,” Marlene Gallagher said. “We decided that, through doing that, we would encourage new people to enjoy where they live.”
As each new neighbor moved in, the Gallaghers paid them a visit — something they continue to do today.
“I generally take a little plate of something I baked and welcome them to our neighborhood, and we take them a string of lights and say, ‘This is what we do, if you’d be willing to participate,’” Marlene Gallagher said.
Merlin and Dorothy Olson also moved to the neighborhood in 1979.
“It was just expected,” Dorothy Olson said. “Even though all the houses weren’t built, whoever lived here in the court just decorated.”
Each neighbor tries to have their lights up by Thanksgiving evening, “but the unofficial deadline is the first of December. It’s not formally set; everyone just knows,” Olson said.
As more houses were built in the neighborhood, more lights and decorations went up at Christmastime.
Jim and June Browning moved into the last home built on Sylvan Court in 1982. They got the usual welcome visit and encouragement to decorate their home for Christmas.
That was no problem for the Brownings. They brought their love of Christmas decorations with them.
“Growing up, the only thing we ever had in our house was a Christmas tree,” June Browning said. “When I started going to his [Jim’s] house, his mom put up a lot of Christmas stuff. I loved that, so when we got married, I started collecting stuff.”
Jerry and Anita LaFleiche lived on Sylvan Court until this year.
“When we moved into town with our Lights ‘N’ Such business, we met Jim and June Browning,” Anita Lafleiche recalled. “He [Jim Browning] came up to our house the first day and said, ‘Hello, we’re the Brownings. Do you decorate for Christmas?’”
“We loved Sylvan Court,” Anita LaFleiche said. “Everybody took such pride.”
Jim Browning said the tradition took hold so well that, if someone was out of town, or a house was vacant, a neighbor often put up decorations for them to prevent a visual hole in the lit-up cul-de-sac.
LaFleiche said Bob Gallagher put up Christmas decorations one year for an 80-year-old neighbor whose son wasn’t able to come and help her as he usually did.
In fact, Marlene Gallagher said, “One year, three houses were vacant, so we went out and put decorations up for them. I don’t think we even asked; we just did it.”
New neighbors have been quick to join in the tradition, but it’s likely none were faster than some of the Olsons’ new neighbors.
Dorothy Olson said she heard a noise in the vacant yard next door one day. When she looked out to investigate, she discovered her new neighbors putting up Christmas decorations.
“They weren’t moving in yet, but they came in and decorated so there wasn’t a hole in the court,” she said.
As years passed, people in and out of town took notice of the neighborhood at Christmastime, and Sylvan Court became a destination for people out on drives to see Christmas lights.
“There were nights on Sylvan Court that there was such traffic that ... cars would line up to take their turn,” LaFleiche said.
The people who live there also enjoy the enveloping effect of driving onto the decorated street.
“I love, love coming home around Christmas time,” Olson said. “It’s so cool. It’s a court, so you’re surrounded, and it really does look nice.”
June Browning agreed.
“When we come back from some event, we come in after dark and we think, ‘Man, this is cool.’ It’s kind of inviting, and pretty.”
Now, people who were welcomed into the neighborhood and encouraged to join in the Christmas decorating tradition, are giving the same welcome to new neighbors.
“I’ve lived here for 16 years, and now I get to be one of the ones to introduce to new neighbors that they get to decorate at Christmas, too,” said Paul, who technically lives on Sunlight Drive.
As a realtor, when he shows homes in the neighborhood, “I tell them it’s kind of Christmas Lane for Powell,” Paul said. “It’s the culture of the street. It’s starting to expand out ... more and more homes are starting to decorate.”
Jim Browning said a neighbor has put her house up for sale. She told the Brownings, “I’ll make sure the new neighbors know they’re supposed to decorate,” Browning said. “She had a big grin on her face.”
Gallagher said she believes the lights at Christmas send a positive message the town and the country need these days.
“Powell is welcoming, but it doesn’t hurt to do just a little more, I think,” she said. “I think we’re in such a time of confusion and fear and anger — this maybe takes away some of that, and brings to light the life and things in Powell. It brings a little happiness with the bright lights.”