The Callowhill Bus Depot in West Philly looked a lot like Santa’s workshop Tuesday afternoon—if Santa traded in eight flying reindeer (plus Rudolph) for eight decorated 40-foot buses (plus three decked-out jolly trolleys).
SEPTA employees gathered there for a holiday party unlike any other you might have seen: The Fourth Annual Festibus competition, a bus and trolley decorating contest pitting the authority’s different transit districts against one another.
For quite a few years now, some transit vehicle operators have decorated a few buses and trolleys. That ignited friendly debates about whose ornaments shined the brightest, and what started out as just adding a dash of merriment to riders’ daily drudgery turned into an over-the-top contest.
Like placing the old silk hat on a snowman’s head, there’s some magic in transforming mundane mass transit vehicles into moving tidings of comfort and joy.
“It makes people happy,” says Dave Musgrove, a trolley operator out of Elmwood District. “I get people who get on here, they’re sad. When they get off, they go: ‘Man, you made my day.’”
Musgrove has been decorating a trolley for four years. Wrapping a streetcar in lights, garland, tinsel and wrapping paper can take days. SEPTA gives Musgrove $150 to help cover the cost of trimming the trolley, but Musgove estimates he poured another $500 of his own money into it. Hanging Christmas bulbs and bunting is a lot of work, taking dozens of hours to complete. This year, he enlisted the help of his son and fellow SEPTA operator Fred Garman.
Musgrove has won best-decorated trolley twice going into Tuesday’s event. He lost last year, but said he felt good going into this year’s competition. Still, Musgrove said he decorates simply to spread the holiday spirit, not for the bragging rights. “I just do it for the fun. Y'know, to make people happy, Christmas time. We don't brag about it.”
At the contest itself, it’s abundantly evident that the holidays can bring out the best in people and competition does too. Teams of five or six from each district decorate a bus to the nines, some decked out in boughs of holly, others dazzling in silver and gold.
“We do this for us and we do this for the customers,” said Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA’s general manager. “It’s just a great tradition and something that everybody feels wonderful about.”
Some Grinches out there may grumble about a government agency indulging in such frivolity. But if they could only see the smiles on some of the children in attendance—or witnessed the good-natured boasting and badmouthing among competing colleagues—then their hearts would grow three sizes that day.
As it turns out, Monday can be “that day” for the mean Mr. Grinch in your life, as SEPTA will display the buses at Independence Blue Cross’ Waterfront Winterfest at Penn’s Landing from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Speaking of the Grinch, there were no dogs disguised as reindeer like Max, but there was a little shitzu dressed up as an Ewok, part of Allegheny District’s Star Wars themed bus, “Star Ride”. In this reporter’s opinion, the decision to play the ominous sounding Imperial March over the bus’ intercom, while reminiscent of the appropriately snowy planet of Hoth, hurt Allegheny.
Star Ride finished third, just behind Comley District’s entry, “‘Twas the Night before Christmas.” Comley adorned their bus in bright white lights and silver garland.
The team from Victory didn’t win, even though their “Frozen” themed bus used blue lights, fake snow and the hit soundtrack to transport all who stepped onboard to a winter wonderland.
Midvale also tried to win over the judges with music. “I mean, you can’t have Christmas without Christmas carols,” said bus operator Jamella Coates.
“Welcome to Christmas with Rudolph and his friends,” she says as I step onto the bus. “That’s our theme this year, and the divas always rock, and hopefully this year we’ll place!”
I asked Coates if the Divas were Midvale’s unofficial team name. Not quite, she says. “It’s just that we do it with diva style.” Diva style translates to impressive recreations of the classic Rankin/Bass claymation special and plenty of silver and gold decorations. But diva style did not win over the judges this year.
Callowhill, winner of the last two competitions, tried to go for three by festooning their bus in gift wrapped packages, candy canes and garland for “the gift that keeps on giving.” But the judges gave them a lump of coal this year.
In the end, that lovable loser Charlie Brown won it all. “Chuck’s Holiday Ride” from the Frontier Division replaced the bus bike rack with a doghouse for Snoopy. The entire Peanuts gang looked out from the bus windows, painted with such precision you’d swear Charles M. Schulz himself wielded the brush. Driver Derrick Banks said the Frontier team of five took seven days to finish decorating.
On the trolley side of things, Dave Musgrove reclaimed his title. Holding the trophy, “Santa Dave” as his co-workers call him, didn’t ho-ho-ho, but he did beam with pride.
You can catch a jolly trolley running on Routes 10, 11, 15, and 36, and some of the Festibuses will run regular routes after Monday’s display, too.