Rituals: O.C.’s Most Unusual Holiday Tradition

How an inadvertent annual hang-out turned a cul-de-sac into a front yard

Orange County doesn’t do modest particularly well, especially when it comes to holiday lights. I’ve seen twinkle-light reindeer that fly and dis- plays that shape-shift to a rave beat. I’ve seen computer-animated elves dance across front lawns to recordings of the All-American Boys Chorus.

By contrast, our family typically dashes out to the front yard in our sweats to toss a single strand of lights over the bushes, usually two days before Christmas. When we finally plug in our measly string, it meanders over the top of the hedge like a scribble, casting an alien blue LED glow over the brown ivy.

It’s embarrassing. This is Orange County. We need to pick up our game. We need to rally—like the neighbors I heard about in Rancho Santa Margarita.

 

For 23 years now, they’ve been turning the light-hanging chore into one giant block party.

When the tradition started, the yards on the cul-de-sac were just dirt, the nearest grocery miles away. People had newborns. Nobody had time to hang holiday lights. To complicate things, the new houses had two stories, and only one guy had an extension ladder tall enough.

So a neighbor borrowed the ladder, and they ordered pizza. The following year, more neighbors joined in. Today it has blossomed into an annual December light- hanging tradition for the surrounding community: Lights Up on Talega.

Held annually the first Saturday of December, it includes a Santa handing out full-size candy bars. Firefighters come, and the community donates hundreds of toys for low-income kids. Lights Up is worth noting for this alone, but the holiday party quickly became the catalyst for more.

Starting with that first holiday house lighting, “we became a front-yard neighborhood,” says Sheryll Grogan, a math and science teacher whose family has lived on the street since its inception. With that first party, they realized they could turn the whole cul-de-sac into a shared park.

For the 17 families who live there, many more front-yard rituals followed the holiday tradition, including parties for the Fourth of July and Halloween, barbecues for Labor and Memorial days, Easter egg hunts in the shrubs. For the millennial New Year’s party, everyone chipped in and bought a giant tent, which they now use for many events. They stage watermelon-eating and pie-eating contests, balloon tosses, and competitions to make the best salsa and chili. They put on parades and host visits from the Easter Bunny as well as Santa Claus. At times, children are enlisted to cook dinner for the parents.

More spin-off traditions followed. The moms on the cul-de-sac decided they would celebrate every woman’s birthday by going out. Together they’ve marked weddings, baptisms, births, bridal showers. They watch each other’s kids if one of the parents has to leave town, and they’ve helped one another through illnesses and deaths. They exercise together. When the kids were young, they took them on field trips, and the dads put together group projects, such as teaching the kids to make tents using PVC pipe.

If it seems remarkable that 17 families have created such shared memories, consider this: Nearly a quarter century later, hardly anybody wants to move. Only a few people have left the cul-de-sac.
“I definitely think it has something to do with our traditions,” says Julie John- son, whose husband, Terry, is the guy with the first ladder. “We’re kind of a big family. We’ve become really good friends.” Adds Grogan: “You don’t hear, ‘Oh the economy is doing well; let’s put up a sale sign.’ That just doesn’t happen in our neighborhood.”

Although many of their children have gone off to college or moved away, no one is making a move yet. There’s still a bigger nest, full of friends who have become just like family, right outside their doors.

I ask Grogan how she thinks their cul-de-sac has maintained the community for so many years—and how other neighbor- hoods might follow their example.

“It truly starts with one person,” Grogan says, identifying Julie Johnson as their prime mover. “Even during the hardest times, she would not let it die. She convinced the rest of us we had to keep going.”

 

I’m not going to give you directions to Lights Up, because it’s not any- thing you want to go out of your way to see. Lights Up has never been about the display. It’s about people helping people. And rather than getting more complex over the years, the light displays actually have become simpler. Now, says Johnson, “it’s like, ‘OK, how much longer are we going to do this?’ ”

But she already has answered that question. In the past few years, neighbors have reached out beyond their cul-de-sac and started distributing fliers to the surrounding homes, inviting them to Lights Up. New children are arriving.

I wish this cul-de-sac were typical, but we really are a transient county. I’ve seen communities here where people don’t know their next-door neighbors’ names. So what a few folks in Rancho Santa Margarita have done seems nothing short of magical.

There probably are other Talegas out there, maybe even some Talegas in the making. For this cul-de-sac, all it took was an extension ladder. And a ritual.

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