'A little cheer into a year that had so little': Decorated street signs lift holiday spirit

It started as a small gesture to mark the holidays in one Milford neighborhood, but the growing movement to decorate street signs is now spreading cheer in several communities.

The practice has been around for years, but has become more prominent due to a social media effort to generate holiday spirit amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

It appears to have started in Milford with the #milfordchallenge that encouraged residents to decorate street and other traffic signs in the city.

Milford police initially discouraged the practice as hundreds of city residents joined the effort.

“We are patrolling and looking for it,” Milford police spokesman Mike DeVito said earlier this month as the initiative was picking up momentum.

DeVito said police will not remove items that have already been hung on poles — unless the name on the sign is covered.

However, Milford Mayor Ben Blake said he feels the decorations are a way to bring some joy into what has been a dark year for many people. Blake said he spoke with Milford Police Chief Keith Mello, who he said was not opposed to the practice as long as the decorations did not create a hazard.

Mello confirmed that Milford police would not be looking to dampen holiday spirits.

“Technically, there is an ordinance against defacing signs, but if people want to spread a little holiday cheer and decorate their signs, that’s no problem,” he said.

Mello said Devito’s initial comments were in the context of police responding to complaints about the decorations.

“Obviously if someone complains, we will respond, and we did receive a complaint,” Mello said. “But other than that or if it creates a hazard, there’s no problem.”

The initiative began when one Milford resident decorated a street sign and posted about it on Facebook. It then exploded nearly overnight, with about 300 decorated signs around the city. The Facebook post received about 500 likes, more than 100 comments, and was shared dozens of times.

In Trumbull, similar efforts have popped up on community social media pages, with residents posting photos of the decorated signs under the name #trumbullchallenge. Similar decorating challenge posts have also appeared for other communities.

Police say they recognize the good intentions behind the movement, but are warning residents about potential safety hazards.

“Even though the intent may be to be a little festive, signs are town property and it is not legal to hang stuff on them,” Trumbull police Lt. Brian Weir said.

Even if people are careful to not obstruct the street names or create a safety issue, Weir said the decorations themselves are a potential hazard.

“It could be a distraction, if someone’s driving by and they see something glittering or sparkling on the sign,” he said. “Or the wind takes it and then it becomes litter on the road or on someone’s property.”

Photos of the decorations posted online included residents wrapping solar-powered holiday lights around sign poles, and others who decorated with garland and ornaments.

Ansonia and Derby residents have added #AnsoniaChallenge and #DerbyChallenge to each of the city’s community Facebook pages.

Ansonia Mayor David Cassetti said he has not heard any complaints from police or drivers about the decorated signs in his city.

“I’m fine with it provided the people who did the decorating remove it after the holidays,” Cassetti. “I think it creates a festive look.”

Keisha Martin-Velez, of Ansonia, and Carol Simonelli Sojka, of Derby, were among the first to decorate stop signs in their neighborhoods. Both said they got the idea from a posting about the Milford stop sign.

After the pair posted pictures of their decorations on the Ansonia and Derby community Facebook pages, the idea spread to dozens of others.

“2020 has been a rough year for everyone,” Martin-Velez said. “If something as simple as decorating street signs can spread some joy and make others smile, Why Not?”

She said that while she and her daughter were decorating the sign at Jewett Street and Root Avenue, “so many people honked and waved at us. Our mission was accomplished.”

In Derby, Sojka was among the first to post photos of decorated stop signs on Howard and Ida avenues. She too got the idea from the Milford post.

“I thought it would be fun,” Sojka said. “It’s a simple way to bring a little cheer into a year that had so little.”

She said the reaction from those in Derby “has been overwhelmingly positive.”

They said they are aware of some police departments warning the decorations could be a distraction to drivers.

“Any Christmas decorations could be distracting,” Sojka said. “Maybe this will make people pay more attention to stop signs.”

Martin-Velez agrees.

“I think it is actually causing folks to pay attention and obey the signs,” she said. “I think as long as the street signs are not covered and people can see them, there shouldn’t be any issues at all.”

Both promised to remove the decorations after the holidays.