Just A Block From The Ocean, This Virginia Beach Street Glows During The Holidays

Move over, Clark Griswold!

Christmas on 43rd Street

Courtesy of Bernice Pope

On the North End of Virginia Beach, the winter months are pretty quiet. Most beachcombers and vacationers are long gone, but throughout the month of December one avenue is busier than ever. On 43rd Street, just one block from the ocean, every single house is covered in Christmas lights, inflatable snowmen, Santas and more Christmas cheer than anywhere else on the oceanfront. Friends, family and curious beach dwellers flock to the street in total awe and delight to stare at the carefully curated homes all decorated with a level of holiday spirit that is rarely seen in such strong unison, but most don’t know the whole story behind this cheery display.

How The Tradition Started

This exuberance for outdoor holiday decor all started in the 1980s, when Vincent Olivieri and his family moved to the street. With visions from his childhood in New York City at Christmas time in his head, Olivieri decided to put colored lights on his home to celebrate the season. Even though the lights brought the children on the street joy, there was one neighbor who was not too pleased with the colorful display. The neighbor, who is long since gone, tried to convince Olivieri and others on the street to only put up simple - and in her eyes tasteful- white lights. The neighbors didn’t listen, and instead, the 43rd street holiday lights tradition began.

At first, things started out small. According to Bernice Pope, the president of Historic Cavalier Shores where 43rd street is located, neighbors on the street would get together with their children to turn on the lights and enjoy hot cocoa and other holiday treats together. It was a simple yet joyous celebration. As time passed, friends of the neighborhood were invited to the event to celebrate the lights and eventually friends of friends joined in on the fun as well, turning the event into the Grand Illumination many North Enders know and love today.

Christmas Lights on 43rd St

Courtesy of Bernice Pope

What The Lights Look Like Now

Every year, the excitement and the anticipation of the Grand Illumination Celebration starts with a note. Residents and those in the surrounding streets receive a reminder in their mailboxes telling everyone that the Grand Illumination is on the first Sunday of December. Then the real fun begins. 

The Grand Illumination is an evening full of cheer. Hundreds of people from across Virginia Beach park their cars four or five blocks away from the street or get in their golf carts to make the journey to 43rd street. At 6:00 sharp all the houses are dark and neighbors, visitors and merry makers gather around the first house at the end of the street and watch the lights turn on. 

This festive illumination makes its way down the street, stopping at each house and watching as one-by-one the street begins to glow with holiday light, but maybe more importantly: joy.

Anne Bennett, who has lived on the street since 1983, has fond memories from the Grand Illumination. She has witnessed engagements, live concerts, interactive displays and heart-warming moments during the Grand Illumination and the whole month of December each year.

Seeing sweet, angelic children walk up to her display, which she now has professionally done like many others that live on the street, is her favorite part of it all. Many times, those tiny tots have made her Christmas.

“It’s just beautiful,” Bennett says about the whole to-do.

Each year, after all the homes are bright and people are celebrating with parties and other Christmas joy, a winner is selected by the resident who won the previous year. The winner receives a plaque and is usually expected to host a party for the next Grand Illumination.

Some 35 years since the tradition began, the holiday lights still shine bright, and they don't show signs of stopping anytime soon.

The Meaning Of Christmas

For Sarah and Will Tortolano, the Grand Illumination marks new beginnings.

Even though Will and Sarah lived across the street from each other for a few months before the first week of December, the night they really met was the night of the Grand Illumination. Sarah’s family had been invited to a party on 43rd street and Sarah’s mom asked Will to join them. 

“I was honestly at first mortified,” Sarah shared. “I texted [my mother] ‘I am going to kill you.’ I was so mad, but it obviously worked out.”

Despite all odds, Will says the pair hit it off at the Grand Illumination party.

“I was enamored with him because he can hold his own,” Sarah, who feared her date would be more like babysitting, explains.

From there, the couple went on to date, and the next year the Grand Illumination came with a big surprise for Sarah: her engagement.

Starting in the summer of 2017, Will got to work planning how he was going to propose to Sarah. As luck would have it, those who lived on 43rd Street wanted to help Will create a proposal that sounds like it came straight out of a Hallmark movie, even though he didn’t actually live on the street.

During that fall, Will was busy creating an LED light display so he could propose to Sarah at the Grand Illumination. As the day drew nearer, he spent more and more time working on the display and it only seemed to grow and grow.

“That’s not my character at all,” Will says. “I’m usually the quieter type, I can fit in and blend in with a crowd, but I am definitely not one to stand out from a crowd or anything like this. So, this was just funny because it took a village and everybody contributed to put this together. And then the night of, I invited all of Sarah’s friends. People came from Yorktown from Longwood University from all over.”

On the night of the illumination, Sarah told Will that she didn’t feel like going, but he convinced her to come out for a little bit. Then came the greatest surprise of her life.

Sarah and Will where Will proposed on 43rd Street

Courtesy of Sarah Tortolano

Somehow Sarah was pushed to the front of the light display and when the lights turned on, there was a sign that asked “Will You Marry Me?” Then, a few moments later, Sarah’s name popped up onto the board in blue letters and Will was down on one knee.

While they had met a year earlier at the Grand Illumination, the proposal at the Grand Illumination made 43rd Street have an even bigger place in their hearts. The couple got married, with the sign on display at their reception, and now ,they bring their young son with them to look at the lights.

Every time they visit the street during the holidays, they take time to reflect on all that has happened to them over the past years, and the Tortolanos aren’t the only ones who feel this way.

Growing up just a few blocks away from 43rd Street. I have always been enamored with the lights. For me, I don’t feel like I am truly home at Christmas time without driving through the street with my family after going to the Christmas Eve service. With my grandfather at the wheel, we listen to the radio station that plays Christmas music and look in awe out of the car windows. 

Residents of 43rd Street take part in a Christmas miracle every year with their wonderful light display, and they have made Christmas at the Beach all the more magical because of it.

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