yikes (2006-05)

Silent Night, Flashy Lights

by Lucy Sieger

I’m fairly understated when it comes to my own personal aesthetics—you’d never describe me as trendy or flashy—but when it comes to Christmas lights, gaudier is better.

One night, my husband and I take a drive around town to scope out this year’s displays. We start out in our own neighborhood, Sequoyah Hills, but quickly get bored. The grande dame old houses along Cherokee Boulevard like to play it safe. Oh, once in a while you see a daring roofline dotted with lights, or a dramatic tree scraping the black sky with its brightly etched branches (bet they leave those up all year, by the way). For the most part, however, it’s elegant white candles in the windows, or a spotlight on the wreathed front door. Every house is the equivalent of Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress. I think of our own strings of white lights, always correct. Yawn.

We’re looking for more Dolly than Audrey, so we drive to some of the subdivisions out west. You know the type, where a French chateau looks like it took a wrong turn and wound up on a third of an acre in Knoxville—right next to an expatriated villa from Tuscany.

This is where the fun begins. These Christmas lights shimmer with the philosophy of their homeowners—bigger is better. After all, thousands of lights can make a 7,000 square foot stucco mansion positively homey!

We see a disturbing pattern, however. Many poor little shrubs are haphazardly draped with chintzy square loincloths of lights. It’s as if they’re wearing hospital johnnies and their backsides are flapping in the wind. How can people buy a million-dollar house but leave their shrubs half-naked in the cold? Isn’t there a protective covenant against such unsightliness?

I decide to look past these cases of shrub abuse and enjoy the show. Before long, I’m bemused by another trend—huge blow-up Santas perched jauntily amongst the lights. I try to remember if we saw these last year when my husband interrupts my reverie: “Look honey, that house has a big turd!”

What? Are the blow-up Santas biologically correct? It must be a huge turd to be spotted from our car, in the dark! I quickly turn and see a French chateau with a large turret, not a turd. I’m feeling a little queasy due to the architectural dissonance and the near-turd sighting, so we rather desperately escape.

We find ourselves in a middle-income area that is unshackled by elegant discretion or nouveau riche splashiness. These are heartfelt displays by do-it-yourselfers. No fancy tree display companies with their lofty cranes in these neighborhoods. I envision the homeowners perched on their shaky ladders. The effect is positively homegrown, with endearing flaws. Got a few extra yards of lights after decorating your carport? Just throw ‘em on that tree over there. The odd shrub is draped in loopy strings of lights, as if decorated by a child. Christmas trees adorned with multi-colored blinking lights shine through front windows. Occasionally, plastic reindeers graze stiffly across front yards. Every house is different, and every house is interesting.

Sometimes, we see large signs proclaiming, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” I like that statement. It strikes me as nondenominational, even inclusive. You can be a Biblical literalist, a liberal Christian, an atheist, a Buddhist, a Jew. But hey, no Jesus, no Christmas! You can’t argue with that! On this conclusive note, we head home.

There’s a shocking postscript to all this Christmas light voyeurism and armchair sociological analysis. You see, our trees have traditionally gone the understated white light route—I’m from uptight Olde New England, after all. At Christmastime, every antique house had a single white candle in each window and a simple wreath on the front door. It has never occurred to me to deviate from this safe holiday formula.

But soon after our ride, I go to Target and buy—of all things—red lights. Boxes of them. Wincing, my husband strings them on our tree. And you know what, we love them. Our living room is an absolute red light district. I feel daring, avant-garde, even a little racy, as I bathe in the soft pink glow of our tree.

It’s good to break out a little bit. I think Dolly would be proud.

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