We all hate the “12 Pains of Christmas” song. I know we do, because I just said so. But when I was listening very carefully to the words last year as part of my annual audio sacrifice (I listen so YOU can laugh!), I realized I still have sympathy for the guy with the lights. His is the most compelling story: We witness, in twelve parts, the evolution of a full-scale holiday nervous breakdown, beginning with mild irritation and progressing through the steps of major aggravation to all-out apoplectic fit.
To the best of my knowledge this one of two pretty accurate mass-media representations of the holiday agony of putting up the Christmas lights (the other, of course, is Chevy Chase and “Christmas Vacation”). I remember dad’s annual dread of the Phone Call summoning him to Narragansett to put up his mother’s lights and try to figure out how the wire-frame electric reindeer stood up. I myself only dabbled in outdoor decor once: Several years back Johnny and I were feeling particularly festive and decided to string lights into the spruce trees in the back yard. We learned a couple of things from the experience. First, the trees were much taller than we remembered, even though we looked at them every time we walked the dog. Second, it is impossible to overestimate the number of lights and extension cords one needs for this sort of project. If I recall correctly we bought out Benny’s of extension cords and had to return to Job Lot at least once to buy another set of green lights, which are, naturally, the most difficult to find.
What our techniques lacked in finesse they more than made up for with creativity. Strings of lights were balled up and thrown in the direction of the top of our perfectly-shaped incredibly tall spruces, only to unravel spectacularly on the way up or get hung up in the branches at the exact height so as to be unreachable from the ground. I found myself inside a tree more often than out, and could have passed as a taxi cab air freshener by the end of the ordeal. At one point John grimly wrapped a string of lights around the end of a broom handle and ascended a ladder while I directed from the ground with a vague suspicion I should be dialing “9” and “1” on my cell phone.
After an hour the yard was littered with cardboard boxes, little packets of extra bulbs, wire ties and safety tags from bundles of extension cords. We were quilted in red welts and scratches from aptly-named needles. Three of our trees, planted as saplings in our childhood and now wrapped in glittering strands of green and white, were quite beautiful. We were so impressed with ourselves we never took them down, or attempted it ever again. I understand why Adam and I counted over 35 houses in Whitehorse that were still strung with lights in July.
There must be easier ways to decorate, else every house would be dark the weekend after Thanksgiving. In my travels I saw lights up and and lights in the process of getting there. Just this morning I witnessed the Hope Valley Fire Department at work, shaking out handfuls of tangled bulbs. There was a lot of standing around and frowning, and come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure they were lit when I drove by hours later after dark.
For this I appreciate the people who pour their heart and savings into their December electric bills. Every year Chris, Will, Libby, Pete and I pile into a vehicle, go to Tim Horton’s (spill a little good coffee on the ground) for hot chocolate and cruise the towns, revisiting favorite yards and excitedly stopping at newly-transformed winter wonderlands. One of our favorites is off Route 91 in Carolina. The district fire chief borrows the field next to his tiny house and fills it with terrible bobbing inflatables and hundreds of colored lights. He’s programmed them all to music that plays on a closed station.
I know, every Christmas the most spectacular houses get passed around on YouTube, and I like them as much as the next person. But the display on 91 is charmingly homemade: Some of those fancy McMansions out west are just too polished, too perfect, the holiday greeting card or Christmas television special type of sterile good cheer. The 91 house has homemade frames and mismatched spectacle pieces. There’s little order and a lot of color, contrary to the red-white-green and stylized spiral wire trees of the other houses. The 91 display is what Christmas actually is to most families, a little bit of chaos and a lot of love.
Several years ago many of the inflatables were stolen from the field. Disappointed and outraged, neighbors raised money to purchase three new decorations, and the chief, undaunted, still put up the lights. A few years later an off-season fire burned the storage shed that held all the lights. And still, every year, they’re blinking away merrily, and every year I look forward to parking on the side of the road and tuning my radio to 107.1 to listen along. It’s a warm feeling, knowing the Christmas House (as we call it) will be lit, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve gained a lot of tolerance for people’s holiday displays. The lights might be too bright or oddly-spaced or there might be inflatables (I hate these things) – but they make somebody very, very happy.
And the more I can look at others’ lights, the less inclined I am to try again at home.