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Seeing what really matters at Christmas

In the darkest corner of the night,
Only dreams illuminate their eyes,
And they see all the colors that we cannot,
And theirs’ is the most beautiful Christmas on the block.
— from “Christmas On The Block” by Alan Mann

Our good friends Bill and Maryellen host an annual Christmas Eve gathering at their home in our Lafayette Hill neighborhood, and it’s one of the highlights of the holiday season for me and my family.

With a varied assortment of family, friends, and neighbors, we’ll gather around Bill’s outdoor fire, reminisce about Christmases past, and sing along to the Christmas songs playing on his boombox. Traditional songs by Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, and Bing Crosby are favorites, as well as classics by Elvis, the Carpenters, and The Beach Boys.

Even relatively newer Christmas songs by millennial artists are starting to become popular among the gathering’s largely baby boomer crowd.

Inevitably, though, as the music is playing and the fire is roaring, I’ll gaze out into the street to admire the Christmas lights decorating the houses in our neighborhood, and the words to one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever will echo in my mind. I always look forward to hearing it played on the radio every year. Its poignant lyrics, along with the uplifting story behind the song, exemplify the true meaning of Christmas.

Alan Mann’s “Christmas on the Block” is relatively unknown outside of this region, but many Philly-area residents consider it their favorite song of the season. They often cite the song’s powerful, emotional impact, not only because it evokes childhood memories of Christmas lights illuminating the neighborhood blocks of their youth. It also conveys a message of selfless giving that resonates during the yuletide season.

In the mid-1980s, rising Philadelphia rock star Alan Mann heard of a group home for the blind on a street in Upper Darby. Every Christmas, the residents would decorate a tree in front of their house, and neighbors considered it the most beautifully decorated tree on the block. Although they could not see, the residents wanted to give an annual Christmas gift to those who could.

The story inspired Mann to visit the house and write the song, which features a chorus sung by second-graders, that often moves listeners to tears.

“I can never hear this song and not have a tear or three,”  a listener wrote on YouTube.

Aspiring Temple University film student Richard Murray made the video — his first — for the song. It received extensive airplay on MTV during the 1986 Christmas season, and it was the only video by an unsigned artist to ever play in regular rotation on MTV.

Mann seemed poised to follow The Hooters and Robert Hazard in breaking out of the 1980s Philly rock scene onto the national stage.

But it was not to be. In October of 1987, Mann died when he jumped or fell from the second floor of his burning South Philly apartment building.

Over 30 years, WMMR DJ Pierre Robert has kept alive the memory of Mann and his iconic Christmas song with regular plays during the Christmas season.

Murray continued his passion for music videos and filmmaking with a long list of feature film credits. He is currently working on a documentary about the life of Alan Mann titled, “No Deal, No Sleep.” He called it “the story of a classic underdog, a perpetual contender who vowed to never give up until he got a record deal.”

For me, “Christmas on the Block” embodies the true spirit of Christmas. Despite their lack of sight, the residents showed all of us that Christmas is a time when we should focus on what we can give, rather than focus on what we don’t have. A line in the song prompts listeners to wonder if maybe all of us are the ones who are truly blind: “They cannot see the lightning, and they cannot see the thunder, they know what no one understands.”

On Christmas Eve, as we gather around the fire at Bill’s house, I’ll think about the words to “Christmas on the Block” and try to imagine what it would be like to be blind by momentarily closing my eyes. Surprisingly, the music always seems livelier, the fire seems warmer, and the voices and laughter of everyone around me seems heartier.

It’s during those moments that the true meaning of the song becomes apparent. Although my eyes are closed, I’m still able to see the things that really matter during Christmas.

Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. He can be reached at gibbonscg@aol.com

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