This Christmas, Laura always remembered to plug in the strand of colorful lights around our patio door before I got home from work. The gumdrop colors framing the glow of light from within our apartment gave me something to look forward to as the evenings darkened.
In fact, all of our decorations inside made me eager to be home from the cold and dark. The three-foot Christmas tree sitting on an end table, laden with ornaments we’ve collected through the years; the nativity scene on the bookshelf; two snowmen figurines and some festive Christmas balls on the mantel; a decorative towel on the stove. It’s not much—not compared to other more elaborate decorators.
When I think of elaborate decorations, I think of my mom. Decorating my apartment takes me thirty minutes; Mom takes a series of days or even weeks to scatter her house with garland, ornaments, bells, cardinals, holly branches, pine cones, cotton snow mounds, glitter, and the many musical Hallmark snowmen and Disney characters that my grandmother sends my younger sister every year for Christmas.
But whether extravagant or meager, why do Mom and I go through all the trouble? In fact, why does anyone decorate at all?
According to historians, ancient people thought the darkening winter days meant that the sun might go away forever. To entice the sun to shine again, they built enormous bonfires—the first Christmas lights.
Though we know better now, on winter days we still feel as if the sun may never shine again. Good tidings of comfort and joy are eclipsed by the early darkening evenings. Isn’t this why, rather than enticing the sun to shine again, we provoke our spirits to lift by wrapping just about anything in lights or tinsel or shiny ornaments? (Even Rudolph contributes with his nose so bright.)
When the world turns blue in the winter evening darkness, I can think of nothing more relaxing than to admire the tree twinkling in the corner of my living room. But I didn’t always feel the excitement of turning on the lights.
When I lived at home as a teenager, Mom was gone for whole days during December, Christmas shopping. The phone often rang close to dusk as Mom was running into the last few stores. “Can you start dinner?” she asked. “Just turn the oven to 350 and stick in the casserole.” I already knew her next request. “And can you turn on the lights?”
Some folks understand their responsibility to light an entire season.
It was a chore, back then, going from one end of the house to the other, reaching behind tables and beds to plug in the electric candles taped into each window sill; trudging out on the cold concrete porch to plug in the icicle lights; getting stabbed and poked as I reached around the Christmas tree to illuminate the strands of lights and the star for our neighbors to see.
If the house wasn’t lighted when Mom came home, she shuffled through the kitchen and dining room, each arm laden with shopping bags, and yelled, “Nobody look!” After she stashed the gifts in her bedroom, we’d find her half buried behind the tree, feeling among the branches for the green electrical plug and mumbling something about how she didn’t understand why someone couldn’t plug the lights in and was it really that hard?
I always felt guilty right then, feeling I was somehow failing to carry out or carry on a tradition that meant so much to her.
I’ve learned since then that decorating for Christmas is something you choose to do or not do—it isn’t mandatory. Just look at any neighborhood where some yards are lit up like a—well a Christmas tree while the neighbors house is Halloween dark. But it seems some folks understand their ability—even perhaps responsibility—to light an entire season with the glow of lights. It’s our defense against the darkness. I like to think that the urge in these people starts with the light in themselves—a selflessness that sends them climbing attic steps or descending basement stairs to retrieve boxes and bags, to wrap and hang and stand and string their decorations for others to see, to dispel the wintry gloom and darkness threatening to consume their patch of the world.
Last year, I visited my parents at Christmas. When she walked into the house after being away all day, Mom was smiling, pleased. “You can tell Sarah’s home—the lights are on in the windows.”
The truth is, I couldn’t wait to plug in those candles and her tree and watch the darkness flee.
And last week, as I hesitantly stashed away my decorations for another year, it occurred to me that maybe, even with my dinky tree and measly decor, I have a little bit of Mom’s light in me.