When I was a kid decorating your house—the outside, anyway—for the holidays meant throwing a few strings of lights around the eaves and maybe on a tree or the bushes. Some people would put up a statue of Santa or a snowman but I think that was considered gauche. And then one year the neighbor of some friends of my parents decided to go all out. He covered the front of his house with lights, filled the yard with a dozen Santas and at least three nativity scenes plus giant illuminated candy canes, stockings, a workshop complete with elves, and three more Santas in sleds with reindeer on the roof. People would drive by just to stare in wonder at this wonderland, and it wasn’t hard to find: just look for the beam, like a stationary searchlight, pointed straight up. And also straight into the windows of the people across the street. This was before this kind of Christmas excess became a regular thing, before it was the subject of TV shows, although the guy did get featured on the local news which just added to the neighborhood traffic. You had to avoid looking directly at the house or it would be burned into your retina and you’d still see it for months, which is why the place brought down property values through March. There’s a fine line between kitschy and tasteless and this guy was the John Waters of Christmas decorations. And I thought, wow, there’s a guy who really loves Christmas. Or really hates his neighbors. Maybe both. At the time most families—including mine—didn’t decorate the outsides of our houses. It’s not that we lacked the holiday spirit. My mother had approximately three tons of Christmas decorations, including a green ceramic Christmas tree that lit up, rotated, and played “Jingle Bells” and which she placed on top of the TV where it provided the perfect background music to Quincy. All these decorations, though, were for the inside of the house and I had a serious longing to join the cool people who decorated the outsides of their houses. I didn’t want to create a neighborhood eyesore. I just wanted something subtle: a few strings of lights, maybe around the eaves, some covering the low-growing holly bushes in front of the porch to make them less menacing, a string around each of the windows, and a dozen or so around the trees at either end of the house.
I wanted to keep it subtle.
My parents did eventually capitulate to my pleas for bubble lights for our Christmas tree so I not only got the joy of bubble lights but also the added fun of wondering why that one weird holdout wouldn’t bubble, why, when all the others were happily bubbling away it remained still. For so long I’d wanted bubble lights and yet when we got them it was the one that wouldn’t bubble that drew my attention, that, late at night when we turned off all the lights except the ones on the Christmas tree, would speak to me. “Hey kid,” it said, “do your own thing. Be an individual, follow your own drummer, dance to your own tune, and when you bury a body in a shallow grave be sure to use quicklime.” But that’s another story.
In retrospect I’m not sure why it mattered so much to me that our house join the ranks of decorated ones. It didn’t occur to me that the only time I really thought about it was December, and that the strings of lights would spend most of the year boxed up in the attic slowly tying themselves into knots. I think I just liked the way they looked. In the cold winter, when the days shortened and the nights were long and quiet, when the trees were bare and the grass brittle and pale, there were lights. They shone through the darkness in many colors, reflections of all the hopes and dreams of all the people who lived in those houses.
Then one year we did get some outdoor lights—just a few, and my father strung them around one of the trees in the front yard. And that’s when I learned the downside of outdoor lights: you can’t see them if you’re inside the house, listening to “Jingle Bells” and watching Quincy.