CRANFORD, NJ — “This is the best street in Cranford. Hands down,” said Kevin Murray on Sunday, Dec. 13, of John Street, where he lives. To be fair, Murray is known as the Mayor of John Street.
John Street has been the talk of the town for more than a decade, drawing residents from all over to see its Christmas displays, a veritable winter wonderland.
“All of this happened about 10 years ago; that’s when it started,” said Liam Brown on Sunday. Dec. 13. Brown has been living on the street for five years. “All of the neighbors, we’ve decided that, if you have a tree or a pole in front of your house, you decorate it. We just make sure that everyone gets involved in the Christmas spirit. As you can see now, it looks like Rockefeller Center, with all of the people coming from all over. From Newark to South Jersey to New York almost, it’s fantastic. It’s really amazing to see everyone getting together and smiling, especially considering how 2020 has been.”
Brown said it’s a friendly competition, not particularly cutthroat. “We all know each other. Sometimes, if there’s someone that’s a bit older and they can’t do their own house, we all get together and help decorate their house. We can’t compete with some houses, such as next door, but we all make it almost like one whole project instead of it being a competition.”
Brown said he had received fair warning about Christmas on John Street.
“Before we bought the house, we were warned about the house being on a Christmas street,” he said. “I think that almost helped us make the decision even easier to buy the house, because it costs, but the feeling is priceless.”
Brown said that COVID-19 had put a damper on this as well as everything else, but that social distancing couldn’t prevent frowns from turning into smiles.
“The first night that we lit up was the two nights after Thanksgiving,” Brown said. “Santa and his helpers were on the back of the Cranford High School pickup truck and he drove up and down the street. He counted down from three and we all lit our houses at the same time, which was just really awesome, as you can see now. It’s tough to back out of your driveway, but it’s all for a good reason.
“It just seems to be getting better and better every year, especially with everything that’s gone down in 2020. I think we went out in full force this year, to make it even a little bit better than most. Every house is involved, and it’s great.”
Another resident, Chris Calhoun, who has lived on John Street for 21 years, said she was sorry she hadn’t gotten involved sooner.
“I’m one of the older residents on the street,” Calhoun said on Sunday, Dec. 13. “But as we had neighbors that had younger children, we all started to get into it, and, in fact, they would shame you, kind of, if you didn’t get into it. They always make fun of me because I always said, ‘Hey, I’m too old. I can’t do this.’ But we all have great neighbors on this block. We’re very friendly to each other and try to get together when we can. From our block parties in the summer to telling new neighbors about being a part of this, it’s great to see people bringing their children and enjoying themselves.”
One of the best parts of hosting such an event, said Calhoun, is lifting the spirits of the local children.
“It’s not like we’re trying to win anything,” she said. “It got to be bigger than originally expected. It’s funny, because this year it was warm on the days where we all started decorating around the same time, right after Thanksgiving, meeting at a certain hour, and that’s when News 12 came out and covered it. We were going to try and turn on everything at once. Everyone was so excited and it was fun, so we tried to make it extra special.
“I have so many decorations that have accumulated over the years, and, if we have extra lights, we’ll help each other. This is just a wonderful block. I think lighting up on this block is great. You want to be positive. There is a light at the end of this tunnel and this is just ushering it in, we hope. We’re all positive. We want to make it special for the kids, and we all just want to move on from this year.”
Murray, who has lived on the street for 20 years now, serves as the de facto spokesperson of the street and said he gets excited for this every year.
“With everything being in the state of a pandemic right now, everyone went a little bit over the top this year to make sure that it was great for people,” he said. “It’s a safe way for people to come down, see the lights and enjoy the holiday. Spreading the joy was the big purpose for this year.
“For the last 10 years we’ve done this. The Saturday before Thanksgiving, we all come out and decorate. If there’s older people that can’t do it, everyone volunteers, and it helps. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, Santa Claus comes, they’ll do a count down and we turn on the lights. Santa usually shows up here, on Saturdays, from 6 to 8 p.m. He was here last night with a couple of reindeer, elves and it’s pretty awesome. It’s an awesome street.”
The street usually has many group activities year-round but, in the wake of the pandemic, neighbors adjusted nicely.
“Right now, there is an outdoor social distancing Christmas party across the street,” Murray said. “The neighborhood always comes here and we do block parties. It’s the best street in Cranford, and we just want to make sure that we’re spreading joy for everyone, especially in a tough year like this.
“When it comes to the question of cost to decorate your house like this, I don’t think you can put a cost on putting a smile on the face of children or the people who come here. I don’t think anyone ever worries about that. It’s more of seeing these kids. We enjoy watching the kids enjoy Christmas and spreading the joy.”
Niki Swayze, a nurse who is working on the front lines against the virus, has lived on John Street for 31 years. She was quick to agree.
“Each year, we continue to get more and more people involved and even more lights,” Swayze said on Sunday, Dec. 13. “We’ve had people coming and going, but they were all joining in. In my opinion, Mike (Guzman) has the best house on the street, and there’s a silent competition for the best house. A couple of weeks ago, we had the lighting ceremony, and everyone was out, helping one another to get their lights up and running. It was a really nice, festive way to start the season, especially with COVID-19.”
Michael and Lacey Guzman, whose house was the main attraction on the block, couldn’t stop praising everyone else’s houses.
“This street is always festive, every year,” Michael Guzman said on Sunday, Dec. 13. “We’ve been here for five years, and it grows every year. It gets better and better. It’s more about the children and getting more families involved. It’s better when everyone’s outside. Everyone’s happy. Children are smiling, everyone’s laughing and having a good time. Everyone did a great job on their houses. The whole block is great, and this is one of the best blocks in Union County, in my opinion. I’ve never seen anything like this before moving here.”
“Children aren’t sitting on Santa’s lap and meeting Santa, so this is a way for them to be outside and still feel the Christmas spirit, and everyone celebrates that joy,” Lacey Guzman said on Sunday, Dec. 13. “This year, it’s busy on this street. It’s a lot of people coming and going. It’s fun, decorating with everyone. We all help each other and the decorations make my husband happy. So it’s nice.”
Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman