TARPON SPRINGS — Because she's the chairperson of this, the 27th year for Light Up the Bayou, Elisha Bowman will be giving her family take-out for Christmas Eve dinner.
And she's okay with that.
"After I see all the candles lit and the community enjoying it, it'll make it all worth it,'' she said.
Since Thanksgiving, under Bowman's watchful eye, the Parent-Teacher Association of Sunset Hills Elementary School has been busy selling lambathas (the Greek word for luminarias) for Light Up the Bayou, a fundraiser that was started in 1986.
Those familiar with the much-loved Tarpon Springs tradition know that after sunset on Christmas Eve, a giant circle of lambathas, each with its own personalized dedication, will set Spring Bayou glowing and indeed create a silent night where all is bright.
Cris Matos, a teacher's assistant at Sunset Hills for 13 years who chaired the event when her sons attended the school, knows firsthand the effort involved in making it a success. It would consume her entire holiday season, all the way up to Christmas morning, when her family would head back to the bayou to pick up all the bags and candles, she said.
"My family is Portuguese, and we have a traditional fish dinner on Christmas Eve,'' Matos said. "When I chaired it, my husband would help me set up, but then he'd have to leave to cook dinner. I'd stay to finish the work, then go home to eat the fish and take the family to mass. We'd all come back together after midnight mass, and that's when we'd really enjoy the celebration.''
Monday at 11:30 a.m., volunteers from the PTA and the Spring Bayou neighborhood will meet near the city tree in Craig Park. Bowman will lead the workers in setting up an assembly line around the water's edge. They will put sand in the white bags, inscribed with words by the people who purchased the lambathas. They will insert the candles and set the bags around the bayou.
Just before sunset, the candles will be lit.
"We expect to sell about 2,000 lambathas. It lights up all along the seawall and walkway,'' Bowman said.
Light Up the Bayou began as an economics fair project created by two of the school's former teachers, Jean Holmberg and Kathy Liotta. Liotta continues to work for the school system as a substitute teacher. She's pleased to see the celebration continue, and grow, through the years.
"The very first year, we didn't know how it was going to go, but wouldn't you know that we spread out 600 bags. It stopped traffic downtown, and the police had to come to help,'' said Liotta, 68.
Families come out to stroll the sidewalk and simply enjoy the flickering lights on the water. Other visitors linger, reading the dedications on each bag, perhaps looking for the one they ordered. Many people honor deceased loved ones with their lambatha dedication. Last year, someone put a marriage proposal on one, Matos recalled.
"I get choked up just thinking about the lambathas,'' said Matos. "I think I do because of the way everyone comes together and the peace and the calm it creates.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.