Monday, February 20, 2017

COLUMN: Christmas Lights

I will never give up on Christmas magic.

It really IS the most wonderful time of the year. You can't tell me otherwise. I will fight you on this.

Last month, I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out why I've never been a big fan of Thanksgiving. I should LOVE Thanksgiving. I mean, what's not to like about a big meal and a free Thursday off work? Then it hit me. The adult me has always been blah about Thanksgiving because the kid me was too busy pining for Christmas.

Think about it - what kid doesn't love summer? Months of no school, playing outside, and doing whatever you fancy within parental reason. Then fall comes along, and that's fun because leaves are crunchy, the air gets tingly, and when your parents aren't looking, you might just be able to sneak a SUPER scary movie or two on cable. Then Halloween hits and there's pumpkins to carve, tricks to be pulled, and treats to devour. Halloween is a kid's dream!

And then it happens. The very minute we round the corner past Halloween, the radio stations switch to holiday music, TV ads start to fill with Christmas cheer, and you know that the greatest holiday of the year is just -- it's just -- oh MAN, it's still TWO MONTHS AWAY? And I have to deal with stupid Thanksgiving first? For an impatient kid like me, November was torture. How can you possibly care about pilgrims and turkey when visions of sugar plums were already dancing in my head?

When I was a kid, Christmastime felt electric like it could set the whole world aglow. I wanted it all then, and I want it all now. Pine and poinsettia, sleigh bells and stockings. Cocoa on the stove and Claymation on the TV. I want dazzling lights and yuletide delights. Snow on the ground and presents all around. I want the perfect Christmases I remember from my childhood.

But this is 2016, and holiday perfection's a pretty tall order in a year this awful. Let us not forget, this is the year that's stolen away every beloved hero from David Bowie to Carol Brady. At this point, we should probably just be thankful to pick up the paper and NOT read that Santa Claus has met with some grisly tragic end (that InfoWars would somehow accuse Hillary Clinton of orchestrating.) In 2016, I should be grateful that Santa hasn't been voted out of office by supporters of a Grinch promising to build a wall around the North Pole while replacing the elves with a Christmas cabinet of the Heatmiser, the Snowmiser, Hans Gruber, Ebeneezer Scrooge, and, oddly, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad.

When it comes to Christmas, I like to think of myself as somewhat an expert. I've seen every holiday special, watched every frame of stop-motion animation, and have even landed on the Hallmark Channel's unending barrage of Christmas movies more times than I care to admit. I'm pretty sure I know what perfect Christmas is supposed to look and feel like. But on all those movies and TV shows, the perfect Christmas seems to involve no prep. It just... happens. Except that it doesn't -- at least not without a LOT of work.

I just finished decking my halls. Well, decking my porch. I grew up in the country, in a house you can't even see from the road. We had no need to decorate the outside of our house for Christmas. So when I bought my own home here in Rock Island, I wasted no time buying some Christmas lights for the porch, because, y'know, how cool is that? Answer: Not very.

Here's the funny thing about Christmas lights: As is turns out, they do NOT hang themselves. In the movies, people just walk down the streets and beautiful lights are just everywhere. You don't often see the chubby, freezing guy whose job it is to hang those lights. It wasn't an especially fun task, and all I have are a few measly strings of lights.

Have you guys seen the house in Moline where it looks like Santa just drove by and vomited Christmas all over the front of the thing? It's pretty much tacky as all get out, but I absolutely love it and detour by it as often as possible. I can't imagine the effort it took to create that monstrosity. All I have is something like ten strands of lights that I ran around the porch pillars and handrails, and that was about enough to do me in for one afternoon.

In past years, friends always helped me put up my meager holiday display. This year, I did it on my own. I expected to just drape some lights around some posts real quick, plug 'em in, and go "Aww, pretty!" But fifteen minutes after I started, I realized I was already turning into a micro-manager, cautiously wrapping lights around two rungs of handrail before running out to the yard and studying the scene like an OCD-stricken Ansel Adams.

"No! No!" my brain kept yelling at myself. "There are 37 lights on THIS railing compared to 35 on the other railing. This simply won't do!" Where this previously unknown perfectionist part of my psyche leapt from I may NEVER know. Here's one thing I DID quickly learn, though: If there really is such a thing as a "perfect Christmas," it should NEVER involve math.

Yet there I was, standing in my front yard, counting bulbs and quite possibly employing algebra for the first time since 8th grade. I carried on like this for nearly three hours before finally giving up and heading inside, though i still find myself resisting the urge to go back out there and perfect it even more. If you go driving down my street and suddenly feel livid and nauseous upon discovering that the left column of my house has 3 more twinkly lights than the right, all I can do is humbly beg forgiveness for my shameful and shocking asymmetry.

Some people say that Christmas magic only happens when you're a kid. I think that's poppycock, and clearly so do my friends at the Hallmark Channel. Christmas magic is real, you just have to work for it sometimes. I don't need a perfect Christmas this year. I'll settle for some twinkly lights, the laughter of friends and family, the cocoa I just put on the stove, and the knowledge that I can try for another perfect Christmas in just... in only... THIRTEEN MONTHS?!?! Oh man...

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