Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Merry Lights

There's an old saying that it is "better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness." It's even better to plug in a few yards of Christmas lights.

I don't much care for winter. When I lived in northern Indiana and western New York, I thought it was because of the ice and snow. However, since moving to southern California seventeen years ago, I can no longer blame the weather. I have come to realize that what I dislike most about winter is the dark. I hate getting up in the dark. I hate driving to work in the dark. I hate driving home from work in the dark.

I'm sure it's no accident that all winter festivals have something to do with light. There are the bonfires of Yule; the candles of Hanukkah, Candlemas, and Kwanzaa; and, of course, the strings of colored lights without which Christmas would be—well, a lot darker.

I love Christmas lights. If it were up to me, I would leave them up all winter. (A few years ago, when I left the lights up well into January, one of the neighbors politely pointed out that in this neighborhood it is customary to take them down immediately after January first.) Any light can illuminate the darkness. Christmas lights do much more. They laugh at the darkness. They merrily thumb their noses at winter.

My best Christmas memories are lit with merry lights: the giant wreath and Santa, sleigh, and reindeer on the sides of Wolf and Dessauer department store in Fort Wayne; the Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls; Disneyland's Main Street at Christmas; walking through the neighborhood with Loretta and admiring (or criticizing) our neighbors' displays.

Then, of course, there are the lights that go on the tree. I'm just old enough to remember the earliest versions—the ones that blew Darren McGavin's fuse in A Christmas Story. They were wired in a series, so if one bulb went out, the whole string went out. Then you had to test each bulb in the string, substituting one that you knew was good, until you found the one that was bad. Good luck if more than one bulb went bad at the same time. And it might not be a bulb at all; it might be one of the little fuses inside the plug. You were always having to make another trip to the store for bulbs or fuses. It could take days to get the tree lit.

There were all kinds of novelty lights when I was a kid—snowballs, candles, icicles, blinking bulbs. Bubble lights were my favorite. I remember gazing in awe at the bubbles dancing in tubes of glowing, colored liquid on my friend Jim's tree. I begged my parents to get bubble lights for our tree, but my mother thought they were too dangerous. She was afraid that the liquid would leak out and cause a short circuit, and the house would burn down. In those days, parents were afraid that just about everything would burn the house down. (They were right to be afraid. One Christmas morning, one of my toys—Vac-U-Form™ by Mattel—short circuited and nearly did burn the house down.)

I felt sorry for my friend Bill. His parents had an aluminum tree. Those things really were dangerous. If you put a string of lights on one, not only was there a good chance your house would burn down, but you'd probably be electrocuted too. You had to light the tree using a floodlight with a rotating color filter, and even then it wasn't safe. There were still at least two ways it could burn your house down: the floodlight could overheat, or the tree could tip over on top of the floodlight, causing a short circuit. A few years ago, I was surprised to hear that aluminum trees were making a comeback. A big mistake, if you ask me. Those things are death traps.

I like the new LED lights. There are no bulbs to replace, and they seem to last forever. They also use less energy, and they don't get hot, so you don't have to worry about them burning your house down. However, I will admit that they took some getting used to. At first they seemed a little too bright, a little too garish. But Christmas lights should be bright, and garish, and, above all, merry. That's the point, isn't it?

I may leave them up until April.

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