I wrote “Christmas Lights” while living in 1998; it’s probably my first conscious attempt at writing a theological reflection, way before I ever thought that I could go to seminary. I thought I’d lost it, as this piece is old enough to have been saved on a floppy drive (!?) or only a CD, but I found a hard copy in my files, finally! Here it is, uncut and unpolished, and I take a theological jump without enough support.
December 15, 1998, Aliquippa, PA
I was listening to Scott Paulsen and Jim Krenn on WDVE the other morning. They were joking around about Christmas lights. Callers and the morning crew swapped stories, trying to outdo each other with descriptions of overly-decorated houses, laughing over the power surges the people cause when they turn on the lights and Duquesne Light must be raking in the big bucks.
Why do Christmas lights fascinate us so?
Perhaps it’s because the sun sets so early. I think Beaver Countians, and Pittsburghers, too, are trying to outdo each other in their attempts to drive back the darkness. My neighborhood is teeming with Christmas lights, and I have to admit that I love it, the tacky homes as much as the tasteful ones. Driving through any neighborhood around here certainly takes away my seasonal blues.
Maybe we’re trying to recapture our lost childhood.
I grew up, for the most part, in various suburbs of Milwaukee—with a short stint in Connecticut during the energy crisis in the ‘70s (not many Christmas lights then). One of our family traditions was to take a drive on Christmas Eve to look at the lights. The four of us—my mom, my dad, me, and my sister—would drive around town “oohing” and “aahing” as if it were the Fourth of July. My sister and I even managed to keep our “she’s on my side” squabbling down to a minimum.
If we didn’t go for a Christmas Eve drive, it meant we were in Iowa visiting my relatives. The drive from Milwaukee to my grandparents’ house in Steamboat Rock is seven hours. We always traveled on a Friday night, after my dad got home from work. I usually slept during the hour and a half stretch to Madison because I-94 in that part of Wisconsin is about as exciting as the stretch of I-90 through Ohio and Indiana.
Once we left Madison, we traveled on a two-lane highway through a string of about ten small towns. Each town, from Mt. Horeb to Barneveld to Mineral Point to Dickeyville, had its downtown street lights festooned with those old-fashioned decorations made of tinsel garland and lights. Each town had its own variety: candy canes, snowflakes, stars, ornaments. I could tell which town we were in just by those decorations. I would stay awake just to see the lights (ok, maybe dozing or daydreaming a little). And in between towns, there were farms scattered across the gentle hills, their houses and barns outlined in light.
Now I drive through Hopewell, to Monaca, to Center, to Beaver Falls, listening to my kids quit their squabbling long enough to “ooh” and “aah” over the homes adorned with the latest craze—icicle lights—or the homes decorated to resemble electric gingerbread homes.
Why are we so fascinated with Christmas lights? Are we trying to make up for the brief winter daylight? Trying to rekindle childhood innocence? Or are we trying to recreate the light of a star that shone over two thousand years ago?