The campaign season has been long and dark. I still find it hard to watch the nightly news. Fortunately, the holiday season is a good distraction. The country needs lightening and, at this time of year, lighting.
While growing up in Golden Valley during the 1960s, two distinctive, wonder-filled events marked the holiday season. First, tips from neighbors to whom I delivered the newspaper. The customers on my paper route were seasonally generous. White envelopes labeled “Paperboy” containing money destined for my F&M savings account were taped to doors.
The second event was the appearance of outdoor holiday decorations. In those days, neighborhoods were dotted with traditional manger scenes, strings of enormous bulb lights hung from gutters and red and green colored floodlights beamed on driveways. Each holiday season, the Browns — of Brown photo fame — put up an awesome holiday lighting display. They actually required traffic-control officers to handle the influx of gawkers.
This early exposure to holiday illumination left a lasting impression. However, during my youth, I had no appreciation for the audacious effort that went into making the neighborhood sparkle. It is only with age that I began to appreciate the pluckiness of my former neighbors. Simply put, Clark Griswold’s world has become more and more understandable over time.
The reality of holiday lights
Decorating a house for the holidays requires courage and commitment. It involves a battle against nature’s toughest elements — wind, ice, ladders, frozen ground, electrical sockets, snow and sardonic commentary from family members. I find motivation for my outdoor holiday decorating quest by visualizing Will Steger and listening to the theme music from “Chariots of Fire.” This year, in an even greater effort to “pump up,” I mistakenly ordered the movie “Everest” on demand, not realizing that the story did not end well for some of the climbers.
In our garage there is a plastic garbage can filled with holiday lights that have been collected over many years and negligently stored on a consistent basis. During this past week, the can and I simply stared at each other knowing a daunting battle was looming: Man vs. Tangled Strings of Holiday Lights.
As the tedious process of disentanglement began, frustration built up with each passing minute. I tried to recall whether I had taken my blood-pressure medication and I experienced a flashback of having hung lights from our eaves backwards so that the correct plug end was far away from the electrical outlet. As my fingers began to stiffen in the cold, I tried to recall the treatment for “frostbite” from a lecture I heard years earlier. I then heard the unmistakable “crunch” sound coming from the concrete garage floor and realized that an innocent lightbulb had succumbed to one of my boots. I pushed forward, freeing each string an inch at a time, convinced that this project was still preferable to watching CNN.
My pertinacity paid off when green and white strings of various lengths, icicle lights, clear and colored lights, cascade lights, lights wrapped around plastic garland and net lights were all separately stretched out on the driveway. Before I declared victory, each string had to be tested. Despite a distant childhood memory of the quivering feel of electric shock, I threw caution to the wind, plugging in string after string after string.
While some strings lit up, a larger number showed no signs of life whatsoever. Others were clearly on life support as they randomly flickered. Still others, allegedly designed to “twinkle,” simply refused to do so. Faced with this mishmash of electrical uncertainty, I asked myself, “What would Thomas Edison do?”
Venturing forth undaunted
Explaining the situation to my wife, she immediately declared that we should have thrown out all those “pathetic and useless” lights years ago. She specifically recalled the year I made a giant peace symbol using strings of lights splayed out in a giant circle on our front yard. Not mincing words, she described that effort as “weak in both creativity and execution.” She said we needed to toss out all of the old lights and that I needed to do something “tasteful” this year and avoid embarrassment. When I asked what she had in mind, she simply responded, “Surprise me” and headed off to the mall. I charged off to Home Depot, credit card in hand and a trunkful of lights ready for the recycle bin.
As I entered the store, I breezed right past all of the things that our house truly needs and found the holiday display. The lighting choices were overwhelming, requiring much more thought than anticipated. Do I use a design that would require a life-risking climb on a step stool? What does the information on the boxes relating to voltage really mean? What colors go with the house? Since my children are already critical of our carbon footprint, will doing a holiday light extravaganza strain my relationship with them? Would the 12-foot, fully illuminated, inflatable plastic snowman fit my wife’s definition of “tasteful”? What does LED mean, anyway? So much to think about.
Ninety minutes and $145 later, I headed home with three large boxes. In making the purchase, I overlooked the small print on the boxes that said “Some Assembly Required.” For me, those three words raise the same level of fear as when the dentist says, “This won’t hurt.” Nevertheless, by the time my wife returned from the mall there were three mechanical deer latched down in our front yard awaiting the official lighting. A small but proud herd.
‘Is it a different species?’
My wife initially praised the purchase but, after the plug hit the socket she asked, “Since when do deer make a grinding metallic sound like a submarine being attacked by depth charges?” She then immediately noticed that the back legs on one of the deer did not light up, giving it the appearance of engaging in a levitation trick. Then she observed that the head of another deer refused to rotate side to side and suggested it be taken to a chiropractor for an alignment. She queried out loud about why one of the deer was a different color — “Is it a different species?” She suggested my herd looked quite anemic and proclaimed that if Santa’s sleigh used “my” deer, children would not get any presents.
I realize that my commitment to seasonal outdoor decoration reflects a generational continuity from my days growing up in Golden Valley. Some traditions like eating lutefisk at Christmas have died a quick and appropriate death. Other traditions, like annually risking electrocution and facing family sarcasm during the holidays die hard. Still, after this dark election season, a lightening distraction associated with lighting up for the holidays sure beats watching the news.
Robert Moilanen is a Minneapolis attorney who practiced in both the public and private sector.
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