It wasn’t December if my family and I were not driving around looking at other people’s Christmas lights.
We started in our own neighborhood, admiring the wild and colorful houses, and the simple monochromatic houses in white, gold, red, blue. In my little kid’s logic, I always assumed the blue houses must be Jewish. Or something. Just a feeling. I wanted to say so, but it seemed rude. I never knew any Jews growing up—at least none that I knew of.
My mom and I especially loved the ones that looked like gingerbread houses with sidewalks lined, every angle of the roof highlighted, doorways and windows lit. Our house should be like that. I studied them carefully as we slowly passed, making mental notes between audible gasps every time a new extreme came into view.
I really appreciated the people who did their trees. Those were the ones who really cared. Random placements among the branches were popular one year. Then our neighbors began to include the trunks, too. A few years later, a tightly wrapped cluster of lights on the trunk with a contrasting color densely filling up the branches was en vogue.
Some people tightly wrapped the largest branches, too. I admired the hard work and patience it must have taken to work among the tangles of smaller branches, which were left bare—even if it did leave their trees looking like enormous, ghoulish claws reaching up from the ground.
Sometimes people did just the trunks, which I thought was weird and lazy. Gradually I began to hate the mongrels who seemed to just throw a string of lights at a tree without a thought, without a care in the world for Christmas. They didn’t understand. Why did they even bother?
My parents had a voyeuristic thing with other people’s houses generally. One of our favorite summer pastimes was driving around new and developing subdivisions to see the new houses. So big. So beige. We dreamed of those houses, everything new and clean and tight, the scent of cut pine timbers and fresh paint and new carpet. Mmm… Benzene…
I have a little of that impulse still, looking in other people’s windows to see how they’ve decorated their living rooms, what they’re using for window treatments, whether they have exposed brick, what colors they’re using, where they’ve mounted their flat-screens, closed or open staircases, thinking of possibilities. And impossibilities.
And in the wintertime, those same South Philly neighbors go bonkers with their front-window Christmas displays. It’s like a competition with Macy’s to have the biggest Pooh Bear-with-Santa-hat, the widest-smiling craft fair snowman, the brightest-glowing baby Jesus and the most solemn Virgin Mary.
It takes me back to those nights my parents drove me and my brothers and sister around to explore unknown neighborhoods, in towns we rarely saw and would never recognize by daylight, my mom on the hunt for new light shows, my dad the coach master whipping and spurring the van ever onward.
Hines Drive, a parkway that snaked through Detroit’s western suburbs, was always a safe bet. We could see up into the back yards of the tony hilltop houses surrounding us, many of which were decked out in GE’s finest. Plus, one stretch of the drive was always done over in a wash of professional, both sides of the parkway giving drivers enough to ogle that traffic slowed to a crawl.
In contrast, my dad every year kept his plans for our own shrubs, hedges and roof relatively basic. He lined the eaves with those old, large, glass outdoor lights on the house. I preferred the simple, bold colors and the heat of those monsters to the small indoor/outdoor lights he used on the shrubbery.
I always dreamt of something a little more extravagant—at the time I would have called it “artistic”—but we never went through with my schemes. As it was, we were already running several extension cords all around the yard and through every doorway and a few windows. My dad went through yards of black electrical tape, wrapping up the joints between strings. I could not fathom how other families did more. (My dad could not imagine how they paid for it.)
For a while we had some of those simple, free-standing, animated things—just a framework to hold an outline of lights to suggest a Santa Claus waving his arm or a reindeer stooping for a nibble at the snow. But they always break down, don’t they?
When we were done, every year, I’d stand on the corner the first night we turned them on and look at our house from the neighbors’ perspective and decide, in the end, I was satisfied. We had done a fine job after all.