This year considered another pilgrimage to McAdenville or Tanglewood, but Saturday evening, we opted to avoid the lines and stay local. We drove slow past homes in Newton, Conover, Rock Barn, Mountain View and Startown. We oohed and ahhed at glowing shrubbery, porch railings and rooflines, the whimsical cartoon figures and solemn Josephs and Marys.
A brick ranch, the home of minimalists, had just four lights out front: two red torches and two green, marking the front entrance.
I use white candles in the windows and lighted white-light nets over my shrubs, but inside you’ll find the true me: a green tree lit with magenta, green, gold and blue mini lights though my heart prefers the old-fashioned “big bulbs” or better yet, bubble lights that flip and flop and refuse to behave.
It’s not Christmas without driving around to see the lights. I remember doing this in second grade when we lived in Tampa, FL. That year we drove around the city to view Christmas trees or Menorahs in front windows. Tampa had a large Jewish population. Still does.
Later, back in my home state of Illinois, silver aluminum trees had taken over. You know, the ones with the rotating color wheels. My mother, ever the traditionalist, couldn’t bear having such a thing in the house, much less the front window. Metal trees didn’t smell like Christmas, and the possibility of being electrocuted by one strung with electric lights put it in the same category as pressure canners: too dangerous to have around.
During the aluminum tree era, my mother was enchanted with a poufy wreath made of plastic dry cleaner bags, scrunched up and fasted to a coat hanger bent into a circle. The wreath had small red glass balls at seven, ten, two and four o’clock. Some crafty person had dreamed these up and Mom was all-in to buy one. In fact, this puffy white wreath greeted our visitors until the Seventies were well under way.
In lieu of a wreath, some opted for a lighted set of red plastic bells on the front door. Deluxe ones played music.
Back in the day, folks strung lights around the porch or the front door, added lights to an evergreen or two if they were especially ambitious. I’m not sure that the colored lights and extension cords were rated “outdoor.” Let’s pretend they were. The lights were invariably colored. (Anyone who would have outlined their roofline with plain white lights would have made the neighbors wonder what was wrong with them.)
This past weekend, several churches had little stables on their front lawns, which brought me back to a childhood memory of the nativity at the E.U.B. church near my house. I’m not sure if the figures were made of plastic or plaster or wood, but one morning one of the United Brethrens spotted our beagle sleeping with Baby Jesus.
During the energy crisis of 1973-74, outdoor lights were discouraged if not banned outright. It was a dismal time for Christmas light fans.
And then the ’76 Bicentennial inspired colonial everything, including candle lights in the windows and white-lit décor.
It’s still a thing to install giant balloons in the shape of Santa, snowmen, gingerbread men and what have you. They light up at night and grow from a puddle of fabric to a robust character with the help of an electric fan.
I’ve never felt the urge to own an inflatable unless it’s something truly unique like a Christmas lobster or a chicken. If such exists, I might consider.
Ceramic Christmas trees have been resurrected from the bins of oblivion. They’ve popped up stores this season as if they’re the next big thing. I wonder whatever happened to the one we had growing up. It was white with red bulbs, the same color scheme as the puffy wreath.
But nothing we saw around here could top what I grew up with. A local farm family became holiday celebrities every December in our corner of Illinois. Area newspapers would run a full-page feature about the family and their obsession with Christmas.
They truly went all out. What began as a few outdoor lights turned into a Christmas extravaganza, with lights all over their bungalow and outbuildings, farm implements and even a vintage convertible in the front yard with a stuffed Santa at the wheel. Their power bill must have been astronomical.
The display was all about 1960s-style colored lights, because well…it was the 1960s. Some flashed. Some twinkled. The place would have put Clark Griswold to shame.
Passersby were encouraged to park and come inside where every square foot was covered with lights or garlands or bric-a-brac. Dressed teddy bears occupied every step of the stairway. Electric candles, crocheted Christmas dolls, and creepy mouse figures and other decorations filled every nook and cranny.
Later, when all the décor was put away, Mom drove by and gasped at scorch marks on the roof where the Christmas lights had burned just a little too long.
Photo: The Charlotte Observer