'It just happened. There was no planning. It just grew out of everybody’s desire for beauty and joy and connection.'
Editor's note: This article was originally published on December 22, 2021. It has since been updated.
It all began in November 2020 with one man's thoughtful gesture to show support for a neighbor who was going through a tough time. The single strand of white Christmas lights Matt Riggs hung from his home to his neighbor Kim Morton's house directly across the street was meant to let her know that their families were always connected despite their pandemic isolation. "I was reaching out to Kim to literally brighten her world," Riggs—who also left a tin of homemade cookies on her doorstep—told The Washington Post. The 48-year-old explained that he knew Morton was facing a dark time as she'd told him about her struggle with depression and anxiety.
Morton was also grieving the loss of a loved one and dealing with work-related stress, the mounting pressure of which led to panic attacks. Like many Americans that year, Riggs could relate to what his neighbor was going through. He himself was struggling, what with having to guide two teenagers through remote school and being consumed by financial angst. "By the end of the year I was just beside myself, 2020 was difficult for a lot of us," he said. This was what motivated him to bring some light into Morton's world. Little did he know that his one strand of Christmas lights would somehow spark a community-wide demonstration of connectedness.
In the days following Riggs' light-hanging to show support, other residents on Dunkirk Road in the community of Towson—just north of Baltimore—followed his example. Soon, several lines of Christmas lights stretched from one side of the street to the other. Leabe Commisso, who lives on the other end of the block, was one of the first to recreate Riggs' holiday gesture. "I said to my neighbor: 'Let's do it, too,'" she recalled. "Before we knew it, we were cleaning out Home Depot of all the lights."
"Little by little, the whole neighborhood started doing it," said Morton, who has lived in Rodgers Forge for 17 years. "The lights were a physical sign of connection and love." Morton and Riggs watched in amazement as neighbors climbed up on their rooftops and tangled in trees to hang the lights horizontally. For the first time in what felt like forever, the community felt connected—even while masked and maintaining social distance from each other. "What blows my mind is that it was all organic," Riggs said. "It just happened. There was no planning. It just grew out of everybody’s desire for beauty and joy and connection."
Seeing his neighbors adopt his idea, "genuinely brought tears to my eyes," Riggs added. "From such a humble beginning, a tiny little act, it became this event." Although he initially started out wanting to support Morton, "it turns out, we all needed this," he said. Melissa DiMuzio, who lives on the same block with her wife and two children, agreed. "It was a tough time. We were all struggling in our own way," she said. "I really wanted to participate." DiMuzio took the community light display a step further by creating a lighted sign that says, "Love Lives Here," and hanging it above the street. "I'm a go-big-or-go-home kind of person," she said. "I stayed up all night bending dry cleaning coat hangers. It was crazy, but it worked."
The collective display was such a hit that the neighborhood decided to make it an annual event, pandemic or otherwise. The following year, they hung their lights together on November 21. "We made a party of it," Riggs said. Posting about the community-wide lights display on Facebook, he wrote: "From one strand between two houses, to hundreds of strands throughout the community, a new tradition is born. The Year 2020 was a long, dark time of isolation, anxiety, frustration and depression for many (most?) of us. 2021 wasn't much better. So the Baltimore County community of Rodgers Forge strung lights from house to house, connecting homes, connecting friends, bringing light to one another. From a very humble beginning of one strand in November 2020 to hundreds of lights throughout the neighborhood, tens of thousands of likes, thousands of shares, and millions of smiles. Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Holidays! Happy New Year! Here's to a BRIGHT 2022."