Tuesday, January 23, 2018
News Roundup

Cochrane Street Christmas in Dade City builds holiday cheer, neighborhood pride

DADE CITY

The Keys admit they go overboard. Their front yard at night is a bedazzling display of string lights and giant candy canes, illuminated snowmen and glowing gift packages, with a 9-foot inflatable Santa Claus atop popcorn pebbles simulating snow. "Last year TECO came out when our snowman kept blowing fuses," said Brinton Key, who estimates the Christmas lights spike their monthly electric bill by $150. "They went over pulling more power."

"Whether you have money or not, we promote the greatest feeling every year," said his wife, Misti Key. "It might be a hot gaudy mess in the daylight, but at night it's magical."

Dade City is known for its Church Street Christmas, where carolers and musicians perform along a brilliantly lit stretch of historic Church Avenue. Less well known is the Cochrane Street Christmas, a smaller event with the same holiday spirit in a predominantly black neighborhood east of the U.S. 98 bypass.

Levater Holt, who recently retired from teaching at Pasco Middle School, has organized and financed the Cochrane Street Christmas since 2001. About 20 homes — including the Keys' place — will participate in the event Saturday night, delighting visitors with elaborate holiday displays and cookies, coffee and cocoa at the end of every driveway.

Holt will host a dinner buffet at her home, with spiritual readings, children's games and gift bags. Local DJ Tony Dawkins will return with his throbbing sound system to accompany a step-dancing troupe and choirs of carolers. The event, which grew out of Holt's annual Christmas party, has become a point of pride in the neighborhood.

The Keys spend the year visiting flea markets, scouring yard sales and even Dumpster diving to expand their Christmas collection. The Cochrane Street Christmas has inspired the couple to make magic from second-hand treasures.

"I inherited my grandmother's ornaments," said Misti, a 39-year-old IHOP waiter, "and I've been obsessed with adding to our collection ever since."

Last month, Misti unpacked two sheds full of trimmings and toys as Brinton, her husband of 15 years, strung myriad lights onto pruned trees and atop their roof. As the lawn and equipment maintenance man at Triple S Golf Ranch, Brinton, 40, is careful about safety while securing installations.

The scene is just as festive inside their modest mobile home. Every wall and table is wrapped in gift foils and bows; working chimes are strung from the ceilings; and virtually every inch is covered with musical figurines. Their Christmas tree barely fits in the kitchen.

"We may go overboard but the street party is not a huge production," Misti said. "It's something so wholesome and joyous. We become an extended family that produces so much emotion and good will."

While the Keys have won two of the past 11 blue ribbons for the best decorating job on their street, they stress that it's not a competition. They make sure everyone is involved by pitching in to help string lights for elderly neighbors along the quarter-mile stretch of homes.

And this year, Holt even persuaded city officials to chip in.

Last week she persuaded commissioners to provide two portable toilets for the event. Mayor Camille Hernandez and Commissioners Scott Black and Eunice Penix promised to attend the festivities.

"It's not much," Misti said, "but it's our very own winter wonderland palace."

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