In nearly every culture there seems to be a winter festival of lights. I would guess that these emerged spontaneously all around the globe, driven by a human need for cheering up in the midst of a cold and dreary time of the year when vegetation has withered, nights are long, and people are cranky. We humans need a reason to be happy in the face of winter’s gloom. In some cultures, alcohol supplies a lot of the winter cheer, of course, but I’m talking about folk traditions that are more PG.
With the downturn in the economy, I was wondering if people were going to light up their houses, yards and anything that will stand still the way they have in previous years. I can remember places that were practically a “must see” for everyone when I was a child. Lights on everything. Moving figures. Life-size mangers. The bigger the better.
One of my favorites was an area in a neighboring town that may have been part of a Christmas tree market. Memories are a little fuzzy, but it seems that parents would take the kids there to check out the trees, and while Mom and Dad were attending to the business of choosing Scotch Pine or Douglas Fir, the kids could go through a brightly lit maze loaded with decorated cut-outs of gingerbread castles, Santa figures surrounded by elves, reindeer and at the end of this dazzling wonderland, a meeting with Santa himself, who would patiently listen to you while you rattled off a list of every toy you had ever seen in the ads on TV. And if Mom and Dad had paid for an “extra,” you went home with a brightly wrapped present that generally turned out to be a coloring book. Hey, it came from Santa, so it was great.
Later on, when you were older and either had a car or had friends with cars, you went on the holiday grand tour. After dark you drove all around your town to gawk at your favorite light displays from years past, took note of the newer ones, commented on additions to old favorites and got together with your best friends, cousins or boyfriends to go to nearby towns with outstanding displays that involved outlining entire houses, yards, fences and anything else that could be wired.
I remember one house in a fancy suburb a few towns away that was almost an institution. This guy had every imaginable decoration on his property – including his piece de résistance, a tribute to The King. Not the Baby Jesus. Elvis. Display aficionados adored it. His neighbors hated it. I believe there was talk of a lawsuit to ban cars driving into the area and clogging up traffic all the while it was on show. That was the down side of the winter extravaganza, of course - the fans who waited all year to see what the proud homeowner would come up with next, and the furious neighbors who ground their teeth at the real inconvenience and probably muttered about “all these people from who knows where,” jamming up their streets and blocking exits.
One of my friends from work once told me she used to take her parents from Ecuador on a tour of light displays in my town when they came for a Christmas visit. They loved it, took pictures, and considered it a real highlight of their stay in New Jersey. Inca gold they could see back home. New Jersey had millions of Christmas lights and people who weren’t afraid to use them. They thought it was fantastic and found the natives really clever!
Melina, who wrote the paranormal thrillers DEVOUR (2007) and PREY (2008) is currently working on a third novel in the series. Her newest vampire tale is tentatively slated for 2010.