South Sparks Street Christmas display refreshed for holiday

Swapping seven swans for four colly birds, Diane Zell revived a childhood Christmas tradition and a local holiday favorite.

Zell grew up on South Sparks Street in State College, where residents have staged a neighborhood display based on “The 12 Days of Christmas” carol for 45 years. Her family was among the first to stake wooden re-creations of the carol’s inventory, starting with the world’s most famous partridge, on their front yards.

When families moved, newcomers would carry on, every December dutifully placing and illuminating the wooden figures that came with their homes.

But in recent years, the show lost a step. Some homes declined to participate, creating gaps and scrambling the customary sequence. Double displays kept the 12 days, but it wasn’t quite the same.

Now, thanks to Zell and a few high school art students, South Sparks’ glory has returned.

After moving her family into her old home last January, Zell enlisted the talents of the State College Area High School fine art club and National Art Honor Society chapter to create a fresh sign and six new displays.

“Now it’s not just us doing it for the community,” Zell said. “It’s more community involvement.”

Students redid the partridge, turtle doves, French hens, colly birds, geese and swans. Zell now has the colly birds, all four perched in a 6-foot Christmas tree, instead of the swans from her childhood because the addition of three households farther up the street shifted the display sequence.

Zell said her enthusiastic neighbors inspired her to breathe new life into a borough attraction that once drew lines of cars and was included on holiday bus tours. Since 1967, the neighborhood has missed only one Christmas — during the 1973 oil crisis that curtailed driving.

“Now that I’m here again, I decided this is the year we’re going to do it,” Zell said. “The neighbors were amenable. The new neighbors were really excited.”

Late last spring, she approached Robert Plackey, a State High art teacher and the adviser for the fine art club and National Art Honor Society chapter, about making displays.

Plackey liked the idea. For years, he, his wife and their two children have loved touring the street after Christmas Mass — usually twice, both up and back.

“We’ve noticed over the years it’s gotten a little jumbled,” he said.

In the early fall, about 25 students agreed to take on the restoration.

“They were all unanimous,” Plackey said. “We didn’t have anyone not wanting to participate.”

Students led by his daughter, Claire, a senior and president of the NAHS chapter and fine art club, started making designs in October. They visited the street, took photos and talked with Zell and other residents about ideas.

“I just said, ‘Be realistic, be creative and don’t be wackadoodle,’ ” Zell said.

With the assistance of building construction instructor Chris Warren and his students, Plackey’s design teams came up with a few innovative twists.

The two turtle doves, for instance, each stand 3 feet across and “float” in the air on rebar spikes. Hanging gold eggs adorn nests for the geese. As for the swans, they swim in a 10-foot pond made from blue tarp and rippling with waves.

Students, however, nixed an original idea for berets on the French hens in favor of more realistic looking fowl.

“I am just blown away by the quality of their work,” Zell said.

According to Plackey, students put in more than 100 hours of work, helping the NAHS members fulfill community service requirements.

“We’re racking up the hours left and right in terms of making this happen,” he said.

His 12-year-old son, Calder, and two Penn State students aspiring to be art teachers also helped.

Jazelle Pilato, one of the State High students, said she enjoyed the experience, though “the time crunch has been hard.” But the final results, she said, were worth the sweat.

“I think when I get older I’ll be able to come back to the street and say I worked on it,” she said.

Zell, who’s reimbursing the school for about $200 in expenses, hopes the displays brighten another 45 Christmases.

She’s seeking community donations to rebuild the other six displays next year. In the meantime, she’ll savor returning to a beloved part of her past after 30 years in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

“Growing up in this area, you have such a sense of community and belonging,” she said. “It started just as a fun thing, and then it grew. It became such a tradition.”

She still remembers the year Santa and Mrs. Claus visited, standing in a yard, handing candy canes to passing children and adding extra magic to a festive street.

“To give it new life,” Zell said, “has been really exciting.”