On South Philly's 13th Street, Xmas lights make "everybody a little friendlier and more polite"

Penelope Garnant, 5, looks at Alex Khoa Du's home, which is decorated with lights and Santa Claus, as part of "Miracle on South 13th Street" Friday, November 25, 2016.

Wander down the hyper-bright and charming block of South 13th Street between Tasker and Morris and you'll see a steady stream of people strolling the sidewalk, as well as drivers stopping their cars in the middle of the block.

They're all there to gawk and take pictures of the "Miracle on South 13th Street."

It is a densely packed, deliriously fanciful and newly teched-up celebration of twinkling lights and dripping icicles, animated sleds and reindeer, plus numerous cartoon characters (think Snoopy and Minions) likewise decked out in Christmas finery.

Last year, Travel + Leisure magazine anointed this gleeful spectacle one of the nation's Top 50 - and Pennsylvania's very best - holiday tourist destinations. Beaten out were other big South Philadelphia light shows on Smedley and Colorado Streets and in Packer Park, as well as high-profile wondrous works at Macy's, the Comcast Center, Franklin Square, the Blue Cross RiverRink, and Boathouse Row.

"But even before that, we were pulling people from all over," said longtime 13th Street resident and Friends Select art teacher Deborah Caiola, while her partner, Christopher Cappello, tweaked effects for the official lighting ceremony Saturday night.

"From now until 'Little Christmas' [Jan. 6], it's a scene here every evening, sometimes a bit like Times Square, but we like it," Caiola said. "For me, it's especially fun when choirs come down to carol. Last year, the Philadelphia Gay Men's Chorus was really wonderful. Each house got a special song."

Costumed and illuminated runners and bicyclists also point their bright-red noses toward this South Philly must-see on nighttime holiday outings, noted Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia activist John Siemiarowski. (The bigger of two bike rides happens on Dec. 15; details at http://bicyclecoalition.org/.)

But if you really want to know what this light show is all about, ask 5-year-old Penelope Garnant, spotted Friday night gawking up at the top-floor window of a rowhouse where a very realistic video-projected Santa was going about his business, sometimes pressing his nose to the glass or waving and occasionally bellowing his trademark "Ho, ho, ho!"

"Now I know there really is a Santa," said Penelope, tugging at the sleeve of her "Nonna," Michele Sengsourinh. "I'm going to write my letter to Santa and put it in the mailbox because I know he's going to get it."

A celebration of holiday cheer and family spirit, South Philadelphia street light shows "have been happening down here for maybe 60 years, and on our block for at least 20 years," said Alex Khoa Du, 39. A 13th Street resident since childhood - his family migrated from Vietnam - Du is now raising his own brood on the block and has been the unofficial organizer of the holiday light show for the last 11 years.

With his most delirious of "over-the-top" house decorations - this year going full bore on A Christmas Story movie theme - "Alex really raises the bar for the rest of us," said next-door neighbor Theresa Ackerman with a laugh.

"But it's a good kind of pressure, a great unifier for this very diverse neighborhood. The project makes everybody a little friendlier and more polite. We spend months, many conversations, talking about what we're planning, then many hours inside and on the street, putting it all together."

This year, with increased community funding and improved technology from a first-time corporate helper, the 13th Street show is looking even more miraculous and contemporary.

For starters, the merry electrician elves of IBEW Local 98 lent bucket trucks and installers last week "to string lights continuously down both sides of the block along the roofline of the houses, giving us a unified look we've never had before," said Du.

"The only bad part is that we may confuse planes flying overhead that this is their landing strip," cracked his neighbor and buddy Anthony Grassia.

Also new: The entire street can now light up or blink off in a single, synchronized "whoosh" - something Du has long dreamed of "for dramatic and energy-saving purposes." That's been enabled by SmartThings smart-home technology gifted by Samsung and installed with last-minute help Saturday from the Geek Squad of Best Buy.

"It's a very exciting project for us, the first we've done anywhere," said Bill Lee, Samsung vice president of Smart Home product marketing. "Philadelphia is a perfect mash-up of all things innovative. We've been loving what the 13th Street residents do. And what a history this city has. You know, when Ben Franklin was postmaster general, he instituted street lighting - admittedly with candles - but that's how it started."

Drawing attention to the smart-home surge "that will be in north of 8 million households by the end of 2016," Samsung has given each of the 48 homes along South 13th Street a starter set of equipment, Lee said. That includes motion sensors and smart indoor and outdoor switches that allow users to turn on the whole holiday shebang, or parts thereof, "automatically or with just a tap on their app-programmed smartphone screen," Lee explained.

Cappello is deploying one motion sensor to trigger a basement window TV set when pedestrians pass by, and another switch to trigger the "6,000 or so" LED bulbs he's artistically strung on a single tree, so the latter will click on precisely at 5 p.m. then shut off at 1 a.m., the official Miracle On 13th Street end time.

"Until now, some residents have just turned their lights on and left them on, 24x7, until January," said Du. "Others have used old-fashioned timers only programmable in rough, half-hour increments. With the SmartThings app - as easy as setting an alarm on your phone - they'll save energy and cut their power bills, especially significant where they're still using incandescent holiday bulbs instead of LEDs."

In case you're fretting about Samsung over-commercializing the "Miracle" show as a sponsor, rest easy.

"From Day One - a neighborhood meeting Nov. 14 at St. John's Baptist Church - we assured everyone that we wanted to help and learn ourselves," Lee said. "We haven't asked for any signage."

"We'll just be visible for the opening and then again on Tuesday night. We'll serve hot chocolate, answer questions, and showcase the tech for visitors."

For the latter event, "Samsung is bringing in some national media, including a lot of mommy bloggers," Du said he has heard.

Uh-oh, here comes another horde to 13th Street.

takiffj@phillynews.com

215-854-5960 @JTakiff