Our Christmas Light Display, The Reason Why

As I untangle the outdoor Christmas lights, checking the bulbs and getting ready to string them up, my thoughts drift back to when I was young, in the 1960s……………

        “Dad, come on, its time to see the lights on the houses.  When can we go?”

        “When it’s not a school night.  You guys have work to do”, Mom reminds us.

        “How about Friday night, after dinner, and maybe we could stop for ice cream on the way back!”

        “What do you want, lights or ice cream!”

        “Both, we would yell back.”

        “How about we come back home and I’ll make us waffles and ice cream while we watch TV.  You can even stay up late”, Mom suggests.

        There it is, the bonus points----you can stay up late.  We’re in the happy zone now.  We have a date with Christmas lights, and waffles and ice cream……as good as a day off from school.  What a great way to start the Holiday season.

        There is no question about it.  The magic of Christmas belongs to the lights.  And how the old stores along Main Street used to be ablaze with the season, colorful lights everywhere, sprayed snowflakes on the windows, toys and gifts so nicely decorated; and Branch Brook Toy Store…..now there are some treasured memories.

        Sitting there on Main Street across from the bus garage (previously a trolley barn), was every kid’s dream store—Branch Brook Toy Store.  At Christmas it was an oasis of toys and magic.  The lights brought you into the store like a flame entrances a moth.  My fascination with that store started just after Thanksgiving.

        “Hey Mike, the catalogs are in.  I just called the store.”

        “Kevin that’s super.  Let’s go up after school”

        “Tomorrow!”

        My old school chum Mike and I would double time it from school to the toy store, almost exploding with excitement upon entering.  The catalog in question of course was the Lionel Train catalog—that venerable piece of Americana that all red-blooded boys drooled over and gawked at.

        There amidst the waterfall of lights and displays lay the coveted new models of train engines, accessories, and transformers.  We would have killed to own a deluxe, double handled train transformer for our home layouts.  Those colorful lights transfixed our gaze on the sparkling train sets as our imaginations ran wild.  What we could do if we had a few bucks.

        It was like when little Ralphie in the adorable Jean Shepard movie, “A Christmas Story”, falls in love with the Red Ryder BB gun in the store window.  Blame it on the power of those Christmas lights.  I tell you, those lights are mesmerizing, an electric Svengalli.

        We are talking big Christmas light bulbs here amigos, not those namby-pamby little twinkly things.  Each light was maybe 10 watts in size, with many different colors.  Sometimes folks put all one color on their house, which I did not care for.  I wanted color variety, and lots of it.

        There was one house I remember that had big Disney characters made of wood and decorated with lights.  That was our favorite.  We went back year after year.  Sometimes Dad would remember seeing a nicely decorated house on the way home from work and take us there as well.  Our little Holiday ride was not just our own family secret.  Lots of our friends did the same thing with their families.  It was a tradition.

        Those big bulbs used lots of electricity too.  Before the window air conditioners came along in great numbers in the late 60s to give us that enormous surge in electricity usage in the summer. Utility companies peak load used to be caused by all the Christmas lights.  Those bulbs can add up quick.

        The big bulbs are making a comeback again after maybe 25 years of being out of favor.  I say welcome back.  Big lights on the houses, and on the trees, just like it used to be.

        A memorable part of Christmas for me was laying under the Christmas tree looking up at all the lights and sparkling decorations.  Yes, I know that was probably a weird thing to do, but I always enjoyed getting a new perspective on things.  It all seemed so magical and still does now as I re-live the years through my younger family members.

        As if all the lights were not enough, we Lionel train buffs used to decorate our train layouts as well.  We would drill holes in our plywood train boards and run wiring up into the little houses and station buildings, and rig them with small lights.  Now the whole board would glow, especially if you turned off the room lights, and ran your little railroad in the dark.  Talk about Holiday magic!

        There is one thing left for me to mention.  It’s the only thing that can trump outdoor Christmas lights---and that’s snow.  The mere mention of snow around Christmas can still send shivers up my spine.  Lights take on a whole new atmosphere when real snow is involved, ratcheting the experience up several notches.

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        My wife comes down to the basement to find me standing there, staring off into space, with an illuminated light string in my hands.

        “Hey Babe, didn’t you hear me calling you?  Hello, …where were you?”

        “Memories”, I reply without thinking.

        “Again?”

        “Yeah.”

        “What year was it this time?” she laughs.

        “1960s.”

        “Did you enjoy yourself?”

        “You know I always enjoy Christmas”

        “Did you know you have tears in your eyes?”

        “……Must have been the bright lights.”

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You just don't see the streets of houses decorated with lights the way it use to be. Maybe people have gotten too busy, and don't have the time to put up lights.  But as a small boy, taking those rides in the car at night to look at all the Christmas Lights is one Christmas Traditions I don't want to see go by the wayside.  Our kids are all grown and out on their own, but I still still go to the extreme in decorating our house. Hoping it brings a smile to some small child who doesn't have lights of their own. Besides, I'm just a big kid myself who hasn't let the bright lights of a display fade to a memory.