On the Friday before Christmas, a mother knocked on the door of a home on Sheridan Road at Thalia Avenue.
At her side was her crying daughter – about 5 years old. The girl was saddened that the Christmas display on the home’s front lawn had its baby stolen from the manger.
The homeowners explained that the baby was not stolen, but was set to be placed in the manger Christmas Eve. The little girl said she’d feel better by leaving her own baby doll for the manger. The couple obliged and accepted the doll.
For 35 years now, such has been the emotions created by Stephen Blasko’s Christmas construction.
It is as much a part of Sheridan Road as the name Brownlee Woods, the loyal Youngstown neighborhood that envelops the area.
Blasko’s Sheridan home had always been a Christmas shrine. But a man of deep faith, he decided in 1982 that people needed a reminder of the real reason for the season – the birth of Jesus.
He built something that could be the envy of Clark Griswold – a 12-foot tall cake that says “Happy Birthday Jesus.”
It is a recycling masterpiece and constructed almost like a parade float. A wood frame and platform support and old aluminum pool salvaged from a neighbor’s trash. The old pool wraps around the bottom, and enough was left to make a second tier. It is painted white like frosting.
Lights, tin foil and iron framing from Stephen’s welding work build out the rest of the “cake.”
It went out one Sunday after Thanksgiving 35 years ago, and has been a Brownlee Woods staple ever since. It comes down after the Feast of the Epiphany – Jan. 6 every year.
“Happy Birthday Jesus” has not missed a year – even without Stephen.
Stephen died in 2012.
It was on a family vacation meant to celebrate the last summer with mom, Mary Lou (formerly Cervello). She had terminal cancer, and the couple and kids made one last family summer event together. But in the surf of Florida, it was Stephen – he the man of deepest faith – who would go first after suffering a heart attack. Mary Lou died three months later. Their family includes sons Mike, Steve, Dave and Brian.
Son Brian said there was no hesitation that “Happy Birthday Jesus” would continue.
“Everyone who grew up in Brownlee Woods knew the house and the lawn at Sheridan and Bancroft” said Brian.
“I was proud to live there. It was the coolest. Friends could always find my house as a kid – the Birthday Cake House.”
Brian was 10 when the cake first appeared.
“This was who my dad was. At Halloween, he had tombstones on the front lawn and he would lay in a casket on the lawn handing out candy from there.”
Brian said Christmas had been a decorated affair before the cake. But as the cake set in as a tradition, the rest of the decorations faded over time.
Setting up the cake was a whole-day affair the Sunday after Thanksgiving, said Brian.
“Hundreds of parts.”
In the past eight years before Stephen’s death, Brian’s friend Deric Madick joined in the construction. And he was there in 2012 to build without Stephen. Also joining in since then have been friends Bob Murphy, Chris Lacivita and cousin Mike Blasko.
What was a daylong affair is now just a couple of hours on that same Sunday.
The family still had the house in 2012, so the cake was there. But in 2013, the Arms Museum asked to host it. Since then, though, it has been in Brownlee Woods where it was born. Two neighbors have hosted it since at the corner of Sheridan and Thalia, Brian said.
“It’s a Brownlee fixture,” said Brian. “I could put it up at my Boardman home. It was tough to leave Brownlee just that one year, but it was an honor for it to be at Arms Museum. They wanted it again, but I was eager for it to get back to Brownlee.”
Deric said his favorite memory was always arguing with Stephen during construction.
“I’d say ‘Mr. Blasko – I’m not coming back next year if we don’t have new screws.’ He would say ‘You came here on your own.’ But I came back every year.”
Deric said when parts would break, Stephen could make a workaround in a minute. All the old, rusty screws were new with just a bit of WD-40.
“Mr. Blasko could fix anything. Brian and I can’t even build a snowman.”
What Deric likes most about now is keeping alive a tradition of a man.
Brian said his dad was the guy you would want to drive by if you were broke down on the side of the road.
“He would bring them home for dinner too. Or homeless people or people in need. He was just a normal guy, but he was also the true meaning of Christmas – helping people all the time.”
And they both enjoy the tradition it brings to the neighborhood.
Brian got to the host home Christmas Eve to place the “baby Jesus” in the manger – just as his dad had done for years. It’s a quiet moment for him. He does it on his own.
The baby he placed this year was the one left by the 5-year-old girl just the day before.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at email@example.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.