I took a walk late last night; actually it was more like an almost mid-night march around my neighborhood in the name of exercise, sort of a pre-emptive strike on what those pre-Christmas goodies are conspiring to do to my post-prime body. It was a cold, crisp night, but pretty nice truthfully. By then the traffic is done, the neighborhoods are quiet, and all the smart people who aren’t criminals or working a late shift somewhere are in bed. I like walking at night, but there’s even a bonus to it this time of year—Christmas lights!
You really haven’t enjoyed outdoor Christmas lighting properly until you’ve seen it from outside your car, preferably from the sidewalk across the street. It’s just better, more beautiful that way. We do some decking-out of our out-of-doors, and thankfully a lot of our neighbors do, too.
Just a few days after Thanksgiving, I was up in the attic crawl space swimming through the dust bunnies and cobwebs to get to the “Christmas Décor” section of our attic archives. Every time I do this, I am instantly transported back to the decorating seasons of my childhood, and I am impressed with how different things were back then. Whereas the Shelburnes who live on Everett Street in 2014 have probably at least 25 different boxes of various Christmas decorations (we do love Christmastime!)—back in 1965, the Shelburnes who lived on north Goliad Street had, maybe, two boxes that lived up on a dusty shelf out in our single car garage that had never seen a car; for a six-year-old who could only remember three Christmases, that box held the stuff of wonder: colored glass ornaments, mirror-like and fragile, a shiny glass star for the top of the tree and a little plastic light-up Santa who clutched a bubble light in his tiny red-gloved hand. I still have that Santa, by the way. Birthright goes to the eldest son, cheap plastic Santa to the youngest. Or something like that!
There were also to be found in those boxes what we called “icicles”—which takes some explaining to modern kids because you don’t see them much anymore. They were thin, fragile, 18-inch long spaghetti-like strips of shiny aluminum foil that my mother from the depression era dutifully saved every year for re-use. And most importantly, there were lights—seven strings of lights with seven multi-colored twinkle lights in each string, the “modern” kind that would stay lit even if one bulb burned out. Those 49 twinkle lights transformed our humble $3 noble fir tree into something approaching noble, a glistening and twinkling work of art. The tree’s other accoutrements were fine, but those lights–they were the catalyst. And they also fired my imagination with the beauty and wonder of Christmas.
That was indoors. What about outdoors? Well, today we have 4 or 5 crates and boxes for those alone! But back then my parent’s sum total of outdoor Christmas regalia consisted of one string of about twelve lights. You may have seen these in museums. They were not today’s Chinese-made $2.99-for-a-hundred Hobby Lobby throw ‘em away after Christmas each year lights. No, these were heavy duty. Fourteen gauge red and green wires. Beefy bakelite C-9 sockets with brass inserts and rivets. And they featured these textured colored bulbs that burned bright and hot. And we had one string of just a dozen of them, just enough to drape across the small porch eave at our house, just enough to let the neighbors (and Santa, hopefully) know that Ebeneezer Scrooge did not live at 125 north Goliad. (He actually lived at 123, but that’s another story, for another day…) Our miniscule decorations were pretty paltry by today’s standards—but I still took great pride in hanging them up and plugging them in each night, bathing the front entry of our non-descript little white brick house in the wonder of Christmas.
I still have those lights; what’s more impressive is that most of bulbs still burn, even though the wires are a bit stiff and brittle as they are approaching 75 years old. I’m pretty careful with them, and when we do plug them in we don’t let them burn for long. Still, I make it a point to sit quietly in their glow each year for at least a few moments, awash in their simple and basic warmth, a glow that also warmed my parents faces and that heralds from a time when Christmas—and life in general—was a lot more, well, simple and basic.
Christmas today is neither of those things, is it? December calendar slots have been overfilled for three weeks now; I’ve been coming and going, racing from parties here and activities there—all of them fun and festive and enjoyable obligations—but obligations, nonetheless. There has been a lot of time spent decking the halls (see above, 25 boxes worth!) both at home and at church, presents to search out and buy and wrap, special services to attend and prepare, relatives to meet and greet, cards to inscribe and mail, eggs to nog and reindeer games…and the list grows along with our waistlines and blood pressures as the season unfolds. By the time it all gets done and 2014 becomes obsolete—unless we’ve been really stingy with our calendar slots and circumspect in our hearts—Christmas may have bloomed and faded and we may well have pretty much missed the real and most important points of what Christmas means and why that even matters. Don’t get me wrong with any of this. I love the lights, the smells, the sights, the sounds. I love the music, the decorations, time with friends, special events. I love buying and giving presents (as long as I don’t have to go to the mall) and I love getting gifts as much as the next guy. But I also know that Christmas can easily be about a mile wide and an inch deep—unless we remember what it’s really all about. And WHO it’s really all about.
I’m admittedly proud and pleased that my old mom and dad’s ancient and basic Christmas lights still burn. A seventy-five year-old light bulb is impressive by any standard—but that’s nothing compared to a Light that came into the world and split the darkness some 2,000 years ago. Isaiah (9:2) foretold it, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadowlands of death, a light has dawned.” John, a gospel eyewitness, wrote about the culmination of Isaiah’s words, “In Him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John1:4,5)
I like to think that one reason I love Christmas lights is because deep inside I know that Christmas, more than anything else, is about Light. God Himself pulled on a dingy cloak of humanity and came to get up close and personal with us—His majesty was cloaked, yes—but the Light leaked through. It pulsed above a stable in a Bethlehem sky; it illuminated the minds of shepherds and fishermen and rabbis and tax collectors and prostitutes and anyone else who would open their eyes; later, it poured out of a sealed tomb to forever change the score in cemeteries. And it is still shining brightly today! Can you see it? Can others see it in and through you?
Jesus the Light said it: “Let your light shine brightly before others, so that they may see your good works, and then give glory to your Father in Heaven.” Now there’s our challenge for the New Year!