Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas on the Block in Philly!

Chris Gibbons had a great piece in the Inquirer Yesterday. Merry Christmas! Peace, Fr. Rick

Seeing what matters most at Christmas

December 24, 2011

In the darkest corner of the night,

Only dreams illuminate their eyes,

And they see all the colors that we cannot,

And theirs' is the most beautiful Christmas on the block.

By Chris Gibbons

Our good friends host an annual Christmas Eve gathering in our Lafayette Hill neighborhood where, with an assortment of family, friends, and neighbors, we'll sit around an outdoor fire, reminisce about Christmases past, and sing along to Christmas songs playing on a boom box. Traditional songs by Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, and Bing Crosby are perennial favorites, as well as classic originals by Elvis, the Carpenters, and the Beach Boys, and even more recent recordings by U2, Wham, and Mariah Carey.

Inevitably, though, as the music is playing and the fire is roaring, I'll gaze out into the street to admire the Christmas lights decorating our neighborhood, and the words to one of the most beautiful Christmas songs will echo in my mind.

Alan Mann's "Christmas on the Block" is relatively unknown outside the Philadelphia region, but many in the area consider it their favorite Christmas song, not only because it evokes pleasant childhood memories of Christmas lights illuminating the neighborhood blocks of their youth, but also for its message of selflessness.

In the mid-1980s, the rising Philadelphia rock star Alan Mann heard of a group house for the blind on a street in Upper Darby. Every Christmas, its residents would decorate a tree in front of their house, and neighbors would often say that it was the most beautifully decorated tree on the block. Although they could not see, the residents wanted to give an annual gift to those who could. The story inspired Mann to visit the house and write the song, which features a moving chorus sung by second-grade students.

The video for the song got extensive airplay on MTV during the 1986 Christmas season, and Mann seemed poised to follow the Hooters and Robert Hazard by breaking out of the local scene. Unfortunately, it was not to be. In 1987, Mann died when he jumped or fell from his burning South Philly apartment building.

Over the last 25 years, the WMMR DJ Pierre Robert has kept the memory of Mann and his song alive by regularly playing it during the season. Robert gets numerous requests for it, and, partly because it's hard to get a copy of the song, the video gets numerous hits on YouTube around the holidays.

For me, "Christmas on the Block" embodies the spirit of Christmas. Despite their handicap, its subjects showed Christmas is a time when we should focus on what we can give, rather than what we don't have. One passage in the song prompts the listener to wonder if the rest of us are blind: "They cannot see the lightning, and they cannot see the thunder./ They know what no one understands."

Last Christmas Eve, as we sat around the fire, I thought about "Christmas on the Block" and momentarily closed my eyes. Oddly enough, the music seemed livelier, the fire seemed warmer, and the voices and laughter of everyone around me seemed heartier. Although my eyes were closed, I was able to see what really mattered.

Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. He can be reached at

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