Since we moved into Cindy, our darling midcentury sweetheart, I’ve been planning Christmas. Planning our schedule, where the tree would go, and most important, thinking about doing outside decorations for the first time in my life.
Every city has its Christmas traditions, and I’ve only lived in three cities, but let’s face it: New York and San Francisco don’t do up the yard decor. Firstly, few people have yards. The City of New York plans the holiday decor so beautifully that stringing lights up the stoop balustrade would be, at best, a minor homage to the likes of Rockefeller Center. (If you’ve never been to NYC, go now. The song “Silver Bells” was written about Midtown Manhattan in December, I’m convinced of it. Aside from the tourists walking six across on Sixth Avenue, this is a time of year when even the most hardened New Yorker can be seen smiling into the evening.)
Who would dare compete with this?
San Francisco, on the other hand–they do up some serious Halloween action. It’s bigger than Christmas, really. And being a native East Coaster, I could never really muster up a good hunk’o Christmas spirit in the unchanging mild weather of the Pacific Northwest. Deep down in my bones–my crazybone, I suspect–I always longed for snow, or at least the promise of it.
But Pittsburgh? Oh, Pittsburgh. Maybe it’s the way light reflects off the three rivers, or the fact that our economy was built on fossil fuels, but Pittsburghers do love a good light show. Fireworks get set off for every occasion from a Pirates win (not often enough) to Saturday night in September (Kennywood’s Fall Fantasy) to just, it seems, random weekends when someone got him a handful of rockets and a lighter.
Electric lights are no exception. Oglebay’s Festival of Lights is only 60 miles away. (My parents, killing time while I took a test for college in Bethany, once drove to see the lights during the day in February.) We have the beautiful Phipps Conservatory, with an evening light show and winter garden. We have Kennywood, the classic amusement park who recently began reopening its gates for the season, decking the halls in grand Pittsburghian style.
The Holiday Lights, reflected off the Kennywood lagoon.
We even have Light-Up Night, the official kick-off of the holiday season, when retailers keep the doors open late, we have (you guessed it) fireworks, AND the downtown businesses keep their lights on ALL NIGHT LONG.
And oh, how the meter spins.
Light-Up Night: Electricity AND fireworks!
Where I grew up, about 60 miles south of the city, in the middle of rural nowhere, I lived over the hill from The House. You know The House. In Rogersville, it belonged to Mrs. Eddy. If memory serves, her full name was Mrs. Nancy Lee Lot Moore Lot Phillips Eddy. Note the second Lot, who happened to be the same as the first Lot.
She was a high school math teacher and our own Elizabeth Taylor, always impeccably dressed, with coiffed hair that put 60s glamour girls to shame. And she had a second electric line run to her house, specifically to power her Christmas displays. As a kid, I was blown away, agog; magic poured forth from her lawn along Ten Mile Creek, reflecting green and red and white on the muddied waters, surely visible from space. As a teenager, I laughed and rolled my eyes at it.
Now, of course, I’m a parent, and I totally want my kids to see it. They should drive along Creek Road and see blown-mold plastic Nativity scene, then the blown-mold Santa, hopelessly out of proportion to the white wire reindeer pulling his sleigh. The giant tree, the stars and the lights, and oh! Such eye-watering, Vegas beauty in our little town of Rogersville. My parents once went to a Christmas party inside her house, and reported back that she has a full-size Christmas tree in every room, each with a different theme–red bows, white crystals, homemade ornaments, gold glitter. No word on whether the bathrooms had their own trees, but I’ll bet they at least had knitted toilet paper cozies.
And now, I live here, with my own house to decorate, and realize how very little I understand about the science and magic of yard decoration.
Here’s what I learned yesterday: Christmas lights, one by one, are not expensive, but when you start shelling out enough to decorate a yard, the Lowe’s receipts start piling up. I found that, like any household project, if you don’t buy too much at the start, you’re bound to run out and need to make a second trip at the height of productivity.
Also, I learned than plum trees have thorns. I learned this because my particular plum tree hates Christmas, and protested every attempt to hang a light strand by reaching out a skinny finger and slashing a hash mark in my hands. So I also learned to wear gardening gloves, or pay in blood to the gods of the Winter Solstice.
I learned that taking an unseasonably warm December Sunday to hang lights runs one the risk of hanging electric lights in rain, which, by the way? Totally not as dangerous as it sounds. What’s dangerous is having the ladder out with an adventurous toddler roaming around. She would’ve made it to three steps if I’d kept my back turned a moment longer.
I also found that strings of lights on a large scale–well, larger than a 700-SF apartment, anyway–are Chinese-puzzle like. One must gauge how much string will cover how much of the tree, and still leave room to plug it in–or plug in an additional strand–and one must also decide whether extending a string of lights between trees is desirable, since it will break up the profile of the wrapped tree trunk with a single line of–Christ, it was a long day.
And then there’s the two-pronged and three-pronged extension cords, and timers, and remote control switches–remote control!–and holy crap, was it always this complicated? Maybe there’s something to the adage that in an attempt to make our lives easier, technology has just given us more baffling choices to make wrongly. In any case, I only had to make one extra trip to Lowe’s, and the magic of Liquid Band-Aid has reduced the stinging in my hands and arms to a low throb.
The house is not finished, mind you. I bought a 33-inch tall vintage Frosty the Snowman, along with a 13-inch Santa and Frosty, but they’ve yet to arrive from their ebay sellers. And the darkness over the driveway is just screaming for a giant lighted wreath to hang against the house. But we’re finished with Phase One, and that’s something.
At the end of it all, night fell, and we trucked the kids out to see the lights.
We totally need a wreath, don't you think?
David gave me my due, and Eliza unknowingly quoted “Christmas Vacation” to me by complaining it was too cold. In that moment, I decided the universe was telling me I had achieved at least some of the reflected C9 glory that is Clark Griswold, and I couldn’t ask for much more than that.