Friday, December 10, 2010

The House that Christmas Threw Up On

Yeah, yeah.  It's Christmas time, I know.  I should be hanging lights all over the place.

I was stashing some baby gear boxes up in the rafters of the garage yesterday, and I found our medium-sized plastic trash bag full of Christmas ornaments.  They were next to our 24-inch tinsel Christmas tree and our two small boxes of Christmas lights.  All of our Yuletide stuff fit on a 2-foot by 2-foot piece of plywood resting between two roof trusses.

I could have gotten it down as long as I was already standing there on the step ladder, but I guess I thought that if I left it, we might just forget about decorating until it was too late.

I've actually gotten better about tolerating the trappings of Christmas.  I wouldn't step foot in a mall in December, of course, but I can walk around the neighborhood, for instance, and appreciate regular folks' attempts to create a festive atmosphere.

Regular folks like this guy:

Every year he goes a little bit more batshit with the light show; and his neighbors, far from complaining, have joined forces with him.  His lights extend to at least one neighbor's house and yard, and flash in time to Christmas music that pumps well into the night.

I've been watching the progress he's made in his decorations for the last month as I walk my dog or run (because I'm a runner now) past his modest bungalow.  He's had a scissor-lift on the sidewalk out front for weeks, and a bunch of drifters and carnies stringing extension cords between the palm trees.  When he fired it all up on Thanksgiving day, I could see it from the dog park, about half a mile away.

The plastic paint tray protects some of the dozens of power strips from the elements

There was a time when I wouldn't have gone by that house for any other reason except to hone my disdain, and maybe torture myself a little bit.  Kind of like when I listen to Glenn Beck on the car radio.

But last night I strolled past it several times, stood across the street, and was able to admire the dedication required to run this show, as well as the sheer spectacle of it.  Of course, part of me was disgusted by the waste of money and natural resources (the local paper says his electric bill is over two grand while he has this display up), but another part of me wanted to sit down and be dazzled.  That part of me was overruled, however, by the part that couldn't stand to hear the theme song from Polar Express anymore.

I remember exactly the moment when I soured on Christmas, but I only have theories as to why.  It was when I was in seventh grade, and we lived in a run-down apartment in Soviet Moscow that served as one of the diplomatic residences.  I didn't remember it as being that shabby, but I recently saw some pictures of it that I hadn't seen in thirty years, and it was all kinds of dilapidated.

So it was the dead of winter in the city for which vodka was invented as an antidote, and my parents had decorated the apartment not only to cheer things up for us, but to show diplomats from other countries what Christmas in America was like.  That was part of their job. They were entertaining some diplomats from somewhere in West Africa, I think, and I was in my room, lying on my bed.

All at once, I was overcome by despair, which was not something that happened to me much.  I was kind of a sensitive kid, but I was usually preoccupied with my cadre of international diplo-brats, selling Levi's and bubblegum to Russians for worthless rubles, aimlessly riding on the Metro, and memorizing all the words to Frank Zappa albums.  I didn't have time for melancholia.  But I was alone that night in a house full of strangers, and fell into a funk worthy of Rodya Raskolnikov himself.  

After the guests left, my parents found me in a heap in my room, unable to explain what exactly was wrong, only connecting it somehow to Christmas decorations.  I must have used the words "tinsel" and "glitter" in my weepy diatribe, because my very indulgent parents put a moratorium on those elements of decor in the house until such a time as I could tolerate them again. 

So for every Christmas after my meltdown until I went to college, the house was only decorated in tasteful wooden, glass, and fabric ornaments--preferably handmade--and wreaths made from fresh-cut pine boughs.  Christmas trees had monochromatic lighting and a simple angel in a burlap gown on top. For music, Mahalia Jackson was acceptable, but John Denver was pushing up against the boundaries of good taste, and Mannheim Steamroller was way beyond the pale.  What a little diva I was!

The truth is that I had mostly gotten over my Christmas revulsion within a couple of years, but it had kind of become my shtick.  I was the guy who hated cherubs and fake mistletoe.  My "problem" with Christmas got me out of many boring events and onerous obligations, and I could scoff at other people's poor taste with impunity.  In fact, I was expected to!

But eventually that role grew tiresome not only to friends and family, but to myself.  So I just became the guy who doesn't really care one way or the other about Christmas.  It's kind of fun to hang some lights under the eaves and stick our little tree in the bay window, I guess.  But it's also fun to not do that, and go see a movie instead.  We'll see which way it goes this year.

The thing is, though, that the kids have now seen houses with real Christmas decorations. And I've seen them see these houses.  Their feelings about garish displays of lights are not very complicated and can be summed up with their own words: "Wowwww!"  So, just as my parents indulged my aesthetic demands, I'm sure I'll be stringing up whatever configuration of lights, tinsel, and glitter the twins demand. 

Maybe even something like this:


***Check it out!!! This here's an addendum regarding holiday spirit and generosity and stuff.***

Starting next week, I'll be writing as the token male at a site called Aiming Low, the brainchild of Anissa Mayhew.  You will hear much more about that soon, you can be sure.

But the thing is that you can and should go to the site and donate some of your Latte money to a family in dire need who are in real danger of not being able to pay their $40.00 electricity bill this Christmas.  Here's the link for Aiming Low's Adopt a Family campaign.  Light up their holiday, yo!


  1. I suppose at Christmas you can turn into a disco boy,you run to the toilet and you comb your hair...

    I like lights at Christmas,but certainly not to the level of the photo you've put up.Looks like Blackpool illuminations.At least they won't need to turn the heating on in that house,the speed of the electricity meter spinning round and round will generate enough.

  2. That pic looks like some of the streets around here. There is so much electricity flowing round I swear you could hold a turkey up in the air and it would come down roasted!
    Christmas is magical with children. My son and I decorated our front room with the tree, fibre-optic lights and fairy lights strung up round the windows. I'm a little bit manical when it comes to decorating the tree though. Hubby had to make me hand over at least SOME of the baubles to our son to hang! lol.

  3. I love Christmas and I love decorations. Tasteful decorations.

    But THAT is an abomination. And playing music all night? Oh hell no. I'd be *that* neighbor. The one in her nightgown on the front lawn yelling obscenities and doing the chop chop vagina dance.

  4. OMG $2000 electric bill? Are you kidding me? In this economy? He should be ashamed of himself. If he really had Christmas spirit he wouldn't waste that money on that abomination... he would donate that money to a soup kitchen, a homeless shelter, a battered womens shelter, or the salvation army or something INSTEAD of just throwing it away to amuse himself.

    UGH! We love decorating as much as the next person but NOT at that expense! we don't have our lights or tree up yet. We will do it this weekend. We will probably only put up one string of lights around the tree outside our house. We will take it down New Years Day too. We are a little conservative I guess.

  5. There's a house in our neighborhood with so many Christmas lights on it that you can see it from space. (Blog post to follow)

    I'm not a fan of Christmas either. Sadly, it's something one must squash down as one's kids get older. Argh.

  6. Random thoughts in response to your non-random Thursday post...

    In Baltimore, we don't do things half-way, so we have a whole street who go nuts for Christmas...wait for it...34th Street.,0,5783467.photogallery

    I remember that the Soviets would decorate for New Year's, but of course, not Christmas. I also remember that my older brother got in trouble when our younger brother was caught listening to the contraband Frank Zappa albums...I seem to recall that it was a goal of all of you boys to memorize the most shocking Zappa lyrics...and now there's a Zappa statue right here in Baltimore. Excessive Christmas lights, John Waters, AND a Zappa statue - man, I love this city!

    Have you taken the girls to see the parade of lit up boats in the harbor of your unnamed city somewhere in the south of a state on the left coast?

  7. Where I use to live people would out-do each other... In fact contests were in full swing... The local paper would send a select staff to view the entrants...I remember one house was all lit in white lights... they even positioned their white mercedes on the driveway to highlight ... There were so many lights u could hear the buzz of the electricity... Believe me there were a few houses that always blew a fuse..

  8. I don't read much fiction but a friend whom I couldn't say no to handed me a book called Charm School about Russian diplomats that I'm reading right now. It is scaring the heck out of me. Houses decorated as the one pictures probably scare me almost as badly.

  9. For me it's a question of context. I live in a crappy dilapidated neighborhood so to see my neighbors put up lights is comforting in a "wow, they care!" manner. Also, we live in a fog belt and my lights (both white and multi) cut the cold dreary gray.

    And then there's our frenemy family. Golf course community, adequate streetlights. There, the whole point of the Christmas lights is to impress people. I kind of laughed when it was evident the husband was showing off, but it was sad when the wife got angry at the three-year-old for messing up her perfect decorations inside. It was exactly like the "They're not for the kids. They're for the holidays" commercial.

  10. @Jacks--Don't get me started! Those lyrics are hardwired in my brain. I still remember every word. And, yeah--I'm surprised that the electrical grid can handle that kind of draw.

    @Alittlesprite--Last year our kids were freaked out by the lights and ornaments. This year they love them. Next year, I'm sure they will demand them.

    @OTO--I would love to see you (or anyone) do the CCV dance in front of that place!

    @Kimber--The guy feels like he's doing the community a service by lifting our spirits. Meh. Although I did see one lonely woman sitting across from the house last night, kind of smiling wistfully. Maybe those dancing reindeer with strobe lights coming out of their butts saved her life!

    @DiPi--I'm looking forward to your one-upping me on the Xmas lights post. I'm sure we are the only ones who have thought about commenting on them ;)

    @Tarisa--I think pretty much everyone who rode the school bus got in trouble during the time when the Frank Zappa albums were circulating! I wonder who started that anyway. We haven't taken the girls to the harbor Xmas lights yet, but I'm sure we will!

  11. Just swap out that Tom Hanks music for the track from the tunnel scene of Willy Wonka with Gene Wilder: "The dangers must be growing for the rowers keep on ROWING..." and voila. Christmas nightmare.

  12. I can't believe you're trash talkin' Johnny D! Dude! John Denver's Muppet Christmas special was maybe the most magical thing that happened in the history of all Christmas magical happenings. The end.

  13. Mutha f*ck, nothing screams "Yule" like shiny hot Christmas light puke. (Oh, and pointless energy waste.)

  14. After watching that I kinda want to have an emergency appointment with my therapist. Or chew tinfoil. I know that the brains of psychotics are very different in a real, chartable way (strange brainwaves on CT scans, or whatever) but seeing it physically manifested in Christmas lights makes me feel decidedly unsafe.

  15. I put lights on the house, but I save the insanity for inside the house.

  16. Well, tasteful wood and glass ornaments are out this year at our house. I'm looking for lots of thick tinsel and space-consuming glitter. We cut a "graceful" tree in the woods. Many of its supple, spreading branches now recline on the floor. Even though lots of the branches are held up by yards of green yarn, the spaces between branches cry out for fill. This may be a tree to appreciate au natural.

  17. Go to the mid-Midwest, specifically Omaha, and you shall see Christmas decorations that are positively Lovecraftian.

  18. We put up Christmas decorations but only indoors and ONLY what can be done in about 8 hours. This was worked out in what my daughters like to refer to as a "sit down" where we banged out an agreement that satisfied all parties involved.

    My mother has always been the crazy Asian lady in our neighborhood and we never decorated. I was hoping to channel that energy in order to get out of the Mommy duties but my kids didn't fall for it...hey, wait a minute...maybe Mom wasn't as crazy as she seemed...MOOOOOOMMMMMMM!!

  19. Unintentionally, we've gotten pretty low key with our Christmas decorating the last few years. I expect this to only be temporary, though as we both noticed the other day that we've been half-assing it.

  20. That would make me crazy. Don't mind lights, but would hate having the sun across the street.

  21. I really really hated Christmas until my daughter's first one. We had a lot of terrible things happen in my family around that time starting when I was in middle school and I spent the Christmas I was pregnant all alone in Montana so it kind of ruined the holiday spirit for me. This year I feel like I'm 5 years old again waiting for Santa because my daughter is 2.5 now and is just learning about the holidays!!

  22. I like Christmas as much as the next person, but that's just overkill! I think I'd go a little nuts living next to someone like that-my decorations take up about as much space as yours :)

  23. There's a guy near us who decks out his farm in a dazzling array of lights every year. It takes him hours, costs him thousands. He does it to add joy to the season, and a little box at the end of the driveway accepts donations for the local hospice organization. Hospice had cared for his father in his dying days, and this is his way of contributing to keeping it going.

    You damn scrooge.

  24. Houses like that are fun for the kids as we drive/walk past. And for that I appreciate the efforts.

    But I'm bloody glad I don't live over the road from one.

  25. Brilliant juxtapose of the theme of Christmas, an unnecessary $2,000 a month electric bill from a Christmas light display, and a link to donate to those who can not afford even a minimum sustaining electric service.

    Fa, la-la, la-la, la, la.

  26. Call me a bah humbug, but...UGH. Why on Earth is Tom Hanks talking to me?

    I've never understood that need to decorate, decorate, decorate, even when I was a kid. It's just too much work. Granted, a lot of times it's pretty much for the kids, but...

    @Anonymous: Seriously? Her three-year-old? Man, someone's getting coal in her stocking this year.

  27. I love your story! Very different than the average 'kid in America' tale, if there is such a thing.

    I was going to buy LED lights, but compromised by just stringing up 2 strings of our left-overs this year. I'm not saying we're going to take pot-shots at Santa if he flies low over our house, or anything, but our 'cheer' factor is decidedly low this year.

  28. I trust in the process of life
    There is a rhythm and flow to Life, and I am part of it. Life supports me and brings to me only goods and positive experiences. I trust the process of life to bring me the highest good.

  29. I confess, I'm dazzled by Christmas lights, even -- or maybe especially -- the houses that go overboard. I can't help it.

  30. I love Christmas, as does a friend who came to me the other day with a concern. Someone close to him confessed to being disgusted and baffled by Christmas and wondered aloud at the point of it all.

    My friend asked what I would say to this person if they had come to me. I told him there's nothing to say. I mean, other than explaining why it means something to me. It's not like you can intellectually convince someone to love Christmas, or even tolerate it.

  31. It must be liberating. Of course, the kids will put that cute kind of pressure on you and if you are like me, you will probably end up caving more an more each year.

  32. I adore Christmas. I bake up a storm, decorate the house as close to Dec 1st as possible, and get the tree up and lights on around the same time. Last year hubby was dragging his feet on getting the lights up until our neighbours put theirs up and our then 16 month old daughter would stand in the window craning her neck to see their house saying "oooh, pwetty yights. Pwetty yights, daddy" over and over again. Yup, heart of stone if you don't put up Christmas lights pronto after hearing that one.

    This year it's even better as we're hearing such gems as "Mommy, I love the Christmas tree. It's beautiful. The Christmas tree makes me happy". (I'm raising a daughter after my own heart.)

    I'm thinking a 2' tree isn't going to cut it for your girls next year. :)

    All decorations below 3' at our place are (more or less) kid safe. And if they're not, they're dollar store items and I can live with breakage. With four cats and (usually) two large dog tails, I've learned to put cheap indestructible decorations down low and nicer stuff which I want to keep around up high. Curiously, my Christmas tree is rather bare on the lowest branches although I remember it being fairly evenly decorated when we started out. :)

  33. Very late to the party, but very close to the sentiment, except my kids are now 7, 5 and 4 and I still refuse to help hang lights. This year my wife, mother-in-law and 7 year old were outside hanging lights on the house and in the trees in 10 degree weather while I sat inside and either read or watch football. I refuse to be goaded into participating, insisting if it was up to me I just wouldn't do it. My wife has accepted that fact and plows ahead on her own. I do lug all the heavy and oversized plastic storage bins of x-mas crap down from the attic and then back up 30 days later, and never without some complaining about how heavy and oversized the bins are. After takedown day this year, my wife didn't speak to me for four days due to my diatribe on the overloading of the bins. Happy Holidays!


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