The Current

How an act of kindness using Christmas lights sparked a neighbourhood tradition

Hard times can bring out the very best in people, as one Baltimore neighbourhood found out last Christmas.

Matt Riggs strung lights from his house to his neighbour's as a sign of their friendship

Residents of a Baltimore neighbourhood connect their homes using Christmas lights. The tradition was inspired by a gesture between residents Matt Riggs and Kim Morton last Christmas. (Submitted by Matthew Riggs)

When Baltimore resident Kim Morton received a text message from longtime neighbour Matt Riggs to come outside last Christmas, she thought it was an invitation to enjoy the snowfall.

But when she stepped outside with her daughter, she was welcomed with a box of homemade cookies and a gift that literally lit up her world.

"[Riggs] had strung some lights from his house to ours," she told The Current. "We have some pretty tall trees in between our row houses that he had threaded them through.... It was just wonderful to see."

It was such a difficult year, and I was ready for some light and joy.-Matt Riggs

Morton and Riggs have been neighbours for more than a decade. Their families are close, to the point where their kids refer to each other as their "neighbour-family."

So when Riggs was setting up his family's Christmas lights last December, he decided to share that moment with Morton.

"I looked across to the kitchen and the Mortons' house and thought, 'Let me see if I can get that to go over there,'" he said.

"I was able to get it to come all the way over and connect us, and I thought that was just perfect."

Christmas lights brighten the streets of this Baltimore neighbourhood, where Riggs and Morton live. (Submitted by Matthew Riggs)

It wasn't long before the gesture between two families grew into a neighbourhood-wide activity.

"A couple of friends of ours also wanted to get involved and started putting up lights of their own," Riggs said. "So within the week, we went from one to two to five to seven [strands of lights], and then it went even bigger." 

A light in the darkness

For Morton, those lights represented a symbolic connection as much as a physical one between houses — one she needed during a dark time.

"I had been, for a lifetime, suffering with anxiety and depression, but the pandemic had really made it challenging," she said.

According to some studies, people have experienced increased levels of stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

That's why Morton felt that Riggs's gesture was a "light in the darkness."

The feeling was similar for Riggs. He said 2020 was a stressful time for his family because his wife works in health care and his kids were in their first year at a new school.

"It was such a difficult year, and I was ready for some light and joy," he said.

A new neighbourhood tradition

Riggs's impromptu gesture has since evolved into a neighbourhood tradition, with multiple families collaborating to prepare special tandem decorations this year.

One of the neighbours, a handyman, drilled anchors into each of the block's brick houses to hook up the Christmas lights. Another neighbour used dry-cleaning coat hangers to create a light-up sign that reads: "Love lives here."

Riggs's gesture has evolved into a neighbourhood tradition involving multiple families. One of the neighbours used dry-cleaning coat hangers to create this light-up sign that reads 'Love lives here.' (Submitted by Matthew Riggs)

Other blocks close by have picked up on the trend, turning it into a friendly competition featuring a range of different-coloured lights.

"They're getting very creative in how they're stretching the lights," Riggs said.

Morton said it was fun watching the celebration unfold across her neighbourhood, even though it felt a little less organic than last year.

It's become a new neighbourhood tradition that shows just how connected the families on the block are to one another, she said, adding that it also teaches a valuable lesson on how to be a good neighbour.

"You don't know what's going on behind closed doors, [so] check in on your neighbours and take care of them," she said. "You never know how much joy that will bring."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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