Despite Covid, Brooklyn neighborhood still a flashy Christmas village

·3-min read
Homes are decorated for Christmas in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights on December 15, 2020, in New York.

In a New York where traditional holiday performances are cancelled, Rockefeller Center tree viewings are timed and travel is ill-advised, it's beginning to feel a lot like the Covid Grinch stole Christmas.

But in Brooklyn's illuminated Dyker Heights neighborhood, not even a pandemic can keep the festive spirit down.

The quasi-suburban residential district features large single-family homes that in late November start shimmering with elaborate holiday displays.

This year tourism is reined in as are bus tours to the southwestern Brooklyn neighborhood that proudly displays its Italian-American heritage.

But its in-your-face Christmas glow is still drawing large crowds, albeit with most in masks.

"I'm in awe," said Eric Steiner, who journeyed from Manhattan with his husband to see the displays for the first time.

"It's such a festive spirit at a time when things are, you know, uncertain and scary for a lot of people," the 47-year-old told AFP in front of a home draped with thousands of glittering lights.

According to local lore the tradition began in the mid-1980s, started by a woman named Lucy Spata in honor of her mother's memory.

Her home is barely visible behind the lavish display featuring angels, Santas, nutcrackers and a gold throne with crimson upholstery where gawkers can snap photos.

"A lot of people are getting depressed," said holiday lights tour guide Robert Perez.

"I think this brings a little laughter and happiness."

- 'For the children' -

Vincent Privitelli generally begins decorating his home just after Halloween, and it takes about a month to put all the elements in place, including bedazzled evergreen arches.

The 33-year-old -- who sometimes appears in costume as Rudolph -- said he and his family debated whether it was appropriate to decorate in 2020.

"I said 'you know what, I'm gonna do it this year' -- with Covid and all, for the children. We need something positive," he said, with a string of vintage-style bulbs around his neck.

Tour guide Perez said this year is different in that most people coming for the lights are local -- "you had people coming in from Italy, Europe" in the past, he said.

For Christine Kong, who ventured over from neighboring New Jersey, the holiday season has provided a moment to "reflect on everything that happened this year."

It's "a different type of excitement -- and I guess hopeful, to what's to come in 2021."

"Because it can't get worse than this," the 31-year-old said.

The festivities gridlock traffic and make parking impossible but the lights are a boon to local businesses.

Robert Cicero of John's Deli serves cup after cup of hot chocolate, along with the occasional hero sandwich dripping mozzarella and red sauce.

"I thought it would be a big thing that people weren't going to come -- but I guess the people are coming because they want to be outdoors" and still get in the holiday spirit, Cicero said.

"Listen, everybody loves Rockefeller Center," he continued, referring to the city's annual tree made famous by decades of pop culture references.

But Cicero said the timed, five-minute viewings at that attraction this year make places like Dyker Heights more enticing.

"Christmas in Dyker Heights... that's really what it comes down to," said Privitelli, who has lived there 30 years.

"Who needs Rockefeller Center?"