By Shank Hoover
Washington Post Staff Writer
Not all your holiday wishes come true. Most don’t. Family merriment lasts until the first cutting remark, the moment your grandmother asks why you can’t get home before the 24th. Your significant other buys you something you would never wear, and you realize that’s the point.
But the glow won’t let you down. The glow is red and green and blue and white. It is strung on strands of pine-
colored wire, twisted around themselves and certified as non-flammable as possible by the Underwriters’ Laboratories. The glow spreads across America in the darkness of the year.
Last Thursday, President Bush flicked the switch to light up the National Christmas Tree. Fifty-six other, lesser trees surrounded the centerpiece, representing the states, the territories, and the District. But in a nation divided between Southern longleaf pine and Northern hemlock, no tree can unite us all.
It’s the lights themselves that are our true national evergreen, their incandescent little glass pinecones twinkling on the water from Casco Bay to the Port of San Diego. The water may be choppy, as the holidays can be choppy. The lights twinkle nonetheless. Like the faintly erratic, cardigan-and-slacks swing of Bing Crosby’s voice on the speakers in the Safeway, wishing us a “Mele Kalikimaka,” the lights sing the season’s irresistible joys.
This is about the strands that bind us together.
Only in the United States could we make a holiday tradition out of alternating current. Leave to Europe the Old World technology of festiveness: raw-egg eggnog, spooky plaster creches, dangerous confections of resinous pine boughs and guttering beeswax candles. On these shores, progress is entwined with heritage. The spirit of the season hums through us all, and the holiday lights are its nerve fibers.
Conveyors of electric cheer.
The American holiday lights were inevitable destiny. Thomas Edison patented the regular light bulb in 1879. It took all of three years before his company vice president, one Edward H. Johnson, would hang flashing red, white, and blue ones—”about as large as an English walnut,” according to a contemporary account—on a Christmas tree in his New York parlor. (For extra effect, an electric motor under the floor made Johnson’s tree spin, once around every 10 seconds.)
According to Bill Nelson, a trainer for Home Depot in Knoxville, Tenn., and a self-taught historian of Christmas-tree lighting, the jaded Gotham papers ignored Johnson’s feat, dismissing it as a publicity stunt (which, of course, it was). But an awestruck reporter for the Detroit Post and Tribune spread the news to the heartland, and it took.
The lights caught on before there was even a place to plug them in. Rich folks brought in electricians, Nelson says, to custom-rig them off household generators. Then came the trickle-down. During the Great Depression, lighting-industry giant NOMA Electric promoted cool-burning outdoor bulbs by giving them away for free, staging house-decorating contests. (Winning households got their electric bills covered.) In 1946, NOMA introduced the bubble light, in colors such as pink, orange, and baby blue, and the national festival of lights was under way.
The lights go everywhere now: on Christmas trees in the small-town square, on the four-car garage on the edge of sprawl, over the bar in the dingiest taproom by the railroad tracks. The room looks and smells like an ashtray, and your beer, the beer that you’re drinking alone, is flat and tepid. But over the heads of the barmaid and the barflies, happiness is shining.
The lights have become a symbol of democracy. You can get 78 feet of them—200 bulbs—for $19.92 through Wal-Mart’s Web site. Dagwood Bumstead and Homer Simpson hang the lights. So does Laura Bush, or people acting on her behalf, on the National Christmas Tree. Lonely graduate students in their efficiency apartments go out to CVS, pick up a box of lights, and twine them around their bookshelves, where they cast little blooms of tinted brightness on the dour spines of Heidegger and Kant.
There are people who complain about the light show, as people must complain about every good thing. The lights go up too early, they waste energy, they’re self-promoting and seedy, like a mistletoe belt buckle, and they are just too…much. Especially when they start winking.
So what? So the lights are crass and commercial. We are a crass and commercial nation. It is our charm. (The BBC, Nelson says, called to ask him this question: Why?)
What does tackiness matter, when the golden and natural light of the sun is gone by 5 p.m.? The choice is darkness or light. Death or life. You look out the window at work (if you even have a window or, these days, if you even have work) and it’s already dark; you drag through the homeward commute and it’s dark; and then, as you round the corner, light. Glowing, multicolored light. You send up a prayer of thanks to that neighbor you haven’t spoken to since she moved in.
“I just felt this momentary sort of warmth and happiness,” says a 25-year-old co-worker, who came home to his trash-strewn neighborhood last week to see lights shining. “It made you feel like, Hey, somebody does care.”
Somebody—it doesn’t matter who.
It doesn’t even have to be your own neighborhood. Limo companies will pick you up in a Lincoln Town Car and drive you around the District and beyond, looking at the lights for $60 an hour, while holiday music plays in the car. You can stop for dinner if you want, says Terri Brady of Ace Limousines in Beltsville, but some folks use their whole three-hour minimum soaking up the glow—”just driving around for three hours,” Brady says.
What matters is that the glow be bright. And that it be colorful. All-white lighting, the “classy” treatment, gets popular in cycles. But it’s prissy and aloof. White lights trace the architecture of somebody’s perfect house, preferably a Victorian: up the columns on the porch, along the slant of the gables, making a crisp turn at every pictureseque angle. They nestle in pine swags, framing the windows, and in the middle of each window a single electric candle is shining. You start counting the windows and realize that there are more on the first floor than there were in your whole house growing up.
(We will not even talk about the inexplicable fad for those so-called “icicle” lights. They never look icy, the way blue-tinged Audi headlights look icy. They are ivory-yellow, like smokers’ teeth. And they droop.)
All-white lighting misses the point. “It’s very pretty,” Nelson says, “but to me Christmas is multicolored lights.” Colored lights speak of generosity, of abandon. (“Honey, it’s gonna be so sweet when we can get them colored lights going,” Stanley Kowalski told Stella, begging her to stay with him through his darkness.) Red, orange, blue, green…most of us don’t notice which colors are in the string, or in what order. Taken singly, they mean nothing, like the base sequence in an unspooled molecule of DNA: G-T-A-G-C. But taken together, they encode everything.
Taken together, they trace the low, frumpy roof lines of row houses, and they do it with joy. They look better, in fact, on low, frumpy roof lines than on steep slate ones. They lie in lumpy, wobbly lines, softening the edges.
We all need our edges softened at this time of year. The lights are our secular holiday display, essential to the ecumenical American celebration of warmth and shopping and TV specials. They are nondogmatic and inclusive. The heavyweights of the lighting industry, the inventors and marketers, were mainly Jewish, just as Irving Berlin, who gave us “White Christmas,” was Jewish. The lights are merry and bright. They hark back to the pre-Christian Christmas, the old solstice festivals of the Yule log and the feasting, when everyone was just glad to see that the sun was not going to be devoured by the monsters of endless night, after all.
We see the glow and we turn inward, away from dread and fear, from the giant cold forces beyond our control. We focus on the little things, the shining things, the things that are right in front of us.
That’s what I do, anyway.
Additional reporting by Tom Scocca.