I Still Love Christmas Lights
Whatever we celebrate, let's bring a little light and joy into the world.
Let there be light. Let there be color. Let there be joy and celebration during the darkest time of the year.
Christmas lights were different when I was a kid. Actually, everything was different when I was a kid, but pretty much every person on earth can say that. It’s the nature of existence.
Back then, Christmas lights were mainly little incandescent bulbs, strung on twisted, green plastic-covered wires. They got hot to the touch. You’d string them inside or outside. The better ones had a little rubber gasket in each socket to keep the moisture out. Many had a female AC outlet at the end of the string, but not all of them did. You needed extension cords.
My dad and I would decorate the bushes in front of the house. I had to reach in among the branches if I wanted to make it look good. Sometimes we’d line the small railing at the top of the steps. We’d circle the tree inside the foyer with lights and then we’d be finished. Whatever other decor we hung - and my mom loved Christmas decor - there were always lights. You could even buy a gizmo to plug in that would make the whole string blink. In the parlance of the 21st century, I guess I would label all of these as “dumb lights.”
At some point, probably in the 1970s, some of the neighbors began to put up tiny blinkie lights. They were not LEDs. Maybe they were micro incandescents? I don’t feel like looking it up on that universal arbiter of all knowledge, the almighty internet. All I know is that the bulbs were a lot smaller and pointier. I don’t think they were prettier, but the novelty gave them some value. The tiny bulbs pushed into tiny sockets instead of screwing in. If one bulb burnt out, all the lights in the string after that bulb went out until you replaced the bulb. That made for some ugly outdoor decor. I’m sure these lights were cheaper and used less energy, but I did not like them as much. They were not as warm and, if they were not the ubiquitous white version, the colors were bland and washed-out compared to the incandescent lights with the opaque, colored bulbs.
After the holidays, my dad would carefully coil up the lights and put them in a box for the following year. That box went into the basement. It was labeled “X-mas Lights” and was part of our household baggage for decades. We’d also put up a fresh wreath every year on the front door. I did not question what this decor was all about. I did not think about the pagan origins of holiday traditions. I just knew that Christmas meant lights and decorations and new toys. It meant old movies and sitting in front of the black and white TV set to watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Most of the other families in the neighborhood put up lights, as well. The Jewish families would put a menorah in the front window around this time, also with little incandescent lights. After the stuff went up, I’d sit back and wait for Christmas day.
When I moved into the city, I did not continue this tradition. I did not buy a tree, nor did I put a string of lights around one of my few street-facing windows. I just enjoyed the lights that other people put up. There was enough electrical holiday ornamentation to get the message across. As I got older and traveled the great American roads more and explored the suburbs - this time from a psychological, if not a physical distance - I began to notice changes in Christmas decor and the public displays erected for other holidays. The incandescent bulbs disappeared. LED lights took over. I hate LEDs. They don’t photograph well. They don’t look as warm. They do weird things to my brain. I’m sure a neuroscientist could explain it, but I can’t. I just don’t like them.
In recent years, I have begun to see inflatable figures on lawns. Sometimes one, sometimes many. Or small manger scenes with plastic characters, illuminated by portable floodlights. I don’t begrudge people their celebration, but these things sometimes collide with a form of obsessive compulsive disorder until the whole yard becomes a mass of illuminated, inflatable personalities quivering in the night. Even worse, some of them need to be inflated by little puffer fans or else they melt into a sad pile on the ground until plugged in again. The worst are the projections - usually cheap, cookie-cutter designs thrown onto the side of a house with a weak light. The moving ones are often worse than the static ones.
And just like that, my little celebration of Christmas lights devolved into a hate list. Please accept my apologies. This is no time of year to begrudge anybody their joy or their urge to celebrate. The truth is, when I see these displays, I usually smile. I lose myself in a fleeting moment of joy. Who can ask for more in this life?
Whatever we celebrate, let's bring a little light and joy into the world. It doesn't need to be much. And let's do it every day, not just at Christmas.
Happy Holidays to everyone. Life is short.
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Paul Vlachos is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. He was born in New York City, where he currently lives. He is the author of “The Space Age Now,” released in 2020, “Breaking Gravity,” in 2021, and the just-released “Exit Culture.”