The Ravenna area's Candy Cane Lane has been a Seattle holiday icon since neighbors won a Seattle Times contest in the 1950s. Residents say the annual decorating frenzy helps neighbors know their neighbors.

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Two-year-old Alex Gross plugs in a cord in his front yard and watches in awe as a Grinch that’s easily five times his size inflates to life.

His parents, Heidi and Shaine Gross, scramble to anchor the grimacing green giant, clad in a Santa suit, as he grows taller. Alex’s twin sister, Megan, shyly looks on, a little confused by what to make of this scene. The kids are just beginning to understand what it means to live on Ravenna’s Candy Cane Lane during Christmastime.

The Gross family has lived here for six years. But how they moved into the iconic Seattle neighborhood, famous for its high-wattage holiday spectacle, is kind of a funny story. Heidi Gross says they spied the house when it was up for sale during Seattle’s bidding wars.

“We had an interview with the former owner, who was very dedicated to Candy Cane Lane,” Gross said. “They wanted to make sure the family they sold it to would carry on the tradition.”

The owner turned down a higher bid in favor of the Grosses, who have been loyal to that tradition ever since. And when they moved in, they inherited all of the previous family’s decorations: cutouts of Cindy Lou Who, Max the Dog, and, yes, the Grinch.

Having thrown the switch this year on Dec. 4, Candy Cane Lane’s residents will continue through New Year’s Eve to treat the rest of Seattle to a holiday display like no other in the city.

A jolly excess

Houses are adorned with strings of lights, dancing reindeer, candy cane-striped poles, tinsel snowmen. Signs that say “peace” in different languages — paz, paix, shalom — greet visitors from front lawns. Some houses have themes: Tracey Sconyers’ is the toy shop this year, complete with elves inspecting a “naughty and nice” list with all the neighbors’ names on it.

The centerpiece is a working carousel suspended from a holly bush on a little island park in the middle of the street. Cars circle the block, slowly so as to take it all in, and some visitors stroll through on foot to see the elaborate displays up close.

“You know moving in that this place is bonkers around Christmas,” resident Vince Miller said.

It’s only natural that this should be the cover story for this year’s Seattle Times holiday-lights guide: The tradition originally grew out of a contest sponsored by The Times around about 1950. The challenge? Create a display that shows the most Christmas cheer. Candy Cane Lane took the top prize, and the tradition stuck.

Preparation for the annual extravaganza starts early. Residents hold a summer garage sale to fund their electricity bill, then begin mapping out the details in September. Then they spend one long day in early December fishing out Christmas trinkets and trimmings from their basements and other storage spaces, and transforming their block into a winter wonderland.

Tightly knit neighbors

Miller and his wife, Marsha, were smitten with the neighborhood when they first moved to Seattle. They began saving up for one of the houses, and when they drove through Candy Cane Lane in December 1994, Marsha Miller remembers thinking, “I bet these houses never go up for sale.”

Just a few months later, one went on the market. Now, the tradition has become part of their annual routine. Miller says she still enjoys it so much each year that she looks forward to the next year even more.

“There’s really no way to explain it,” Miller said. “You just have to live here.”

The 23 houses on Candy Cane Lane were built close together on purpose. In the 1920s, a University of Washington architecture project fashioned this block as a neighborhood community. The effect was something like an English country village, homes made of brick with arched doorways and tiny garages hidden in the back. They still look quaint, like a snapshot from a different era, and have held up surprisingly well, says Sconyers, though there are the usual challenges of an elderly domicile.

“I put up with an 85-year-old, falling-apart house because of this neighborhood,” Sconyers said. “It’s so worth it with these neighbors.”

Sure, there are down sides every December: the constant smell of auto exhaust, the lack of privacy, the dearth of peace and quiet, and — oh, yes — that electric bill. Over the years, an occasional resident has chosen not to decorate. But most seem to think the holiday jollity is worth the trade-offs. The neighborhood’s architecture, combined with the street-decorating tradition, has catalyzed an atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else — something rare in a big city.

The character of the street has waxed and waned with new generations. Bill Rehder moved in when he was a young dad, and now he’s a grandfather. He’s lived there 45 years, the longest of any of the current residents.

“The neighborhood always had both older people and young families,” Rehder said. “There was a diversity our kids could grow up with and learn to live with. That [change of generations] has happened three times.”

Rehder, a logging engineer, designed and built Candy Cane Lane’s carousel in the 1960s. The idea came to him in a dream, he says. He wanted to create a display with some sort of animation. It still spins around the holly bush today, and remains a neighborhood favorite.

“It’s exciting and fun knowing that we’re doing something that anyone can enjoy,” Marsha Miller said. “It’s our little tradition that we give back to the community.”