I put my Christmas lights up Sunday.
I didn’t mean to put up my Christmas lights, to be honest. I wanted to just plug in last year’s Christmas lights–which are also my Christmas lights from the year before–to make sure they still worked. Sadly, they had other plans.
So I had a choice to make. I could try to fix the Christmas lights I put up in 2019 to make them work all over again, or I could scrap them for something new. The old Christmas lights were kind of faded (that’s what happens when Christmas lights have been out in the sun for two summers), and I bought them at a garage sale in 2017, as part of an enormous box of Christmas crap that cost me $10.
One portion of a $10 investment from 2017 did not seem worth the trouble. So I unwound our balcony railing, and the foot of our balcony railing, and the railing of the little semi-enclosed area beneath our railing. I decided some big box store probably already had all the Christmas crap I could hope to get my hands on, and I would just go and purchase new Christmas crap and throw out the mostly non-functional Christmas crap I already owned.
I decided on icicle lights. Some were blue, and some were white, and some were blue and white. Some twinkled, and some didn’t. (This was not a conscious decision, by the way; this is what happens when a guy in a hurry doesn’t think to check that other shoppers may have mixed up the boxes.) I could have fixed it at the checkout, but by then I was way on the other side of the store, so I decided to live with it. The person next to me in line looked at my mismatched light purchases and promptly announced, “Too soon!” as though I had spoken of a tragedy after it recently happened. I ignored them, and went home to put up the new Christmas lights.
It turns out, when you jam icicle lights into a small cardboard box (well, not “you” – you didn’t do it; I most likely refer to someone overseas who is horribly underpaid), the lights and cords get tangled and mangled and twisted every which way, so a small stream of curse words began to descend from our balcony as I worked, but in time I found a system and began the installation. Two neighbors, a husband and wife whom I like very much, were walking their dogs on our block and noticed me working. “Too soon!” the husband cried. I made some crack about how I would rather hang lights when it’s 60 degrees than 16 degrees, and went back to work.
And somewhere after that, a funny thing happened: I began to care about my Christmas lights. In fairness, I tend to put up Christmas lights because the love of my life cares about whether or not we have Christmas lights, and I care about her, and so: lights. But this time, I started to care for me. I figured out which were blue, and which were white, and which were blue and white. I tested to see which ones twinkled and which didn’t. And then, I actually created a plan for my Christmas lights, so the blue would go there and the blue-and-white would go there and the white would be over there and the twinklies would be on that row and the non-twinklies above that row. I zip-tied lights to the railing; I used wire staples to tack lights into the decking. I ran an extension cord and set a timer and put the timer inside a plastic bag to protect it from the future elements. And then, I waited for dark.
Since we’re waiting, let me tell you about Saturday.
First: Saturday was Daylight Savings Time, so I had to set my clocks an hour back. People get all jazzed about the possibility of an extra hour of sleep, but they usually stay up late and negate that extra hour, and even if they don’t, one extra hour of sleep is (for me) not worth several months of driving home from work in the dark. I am not a fan of Daylight Savings Time, or at least I am not a fan of it in November.
The only other memorable thing that happened on Saturday was that I went to a funeral. That’s not even true. I went to something called a celebration of life, though it seemed pretty hard to be celebratory, under the circumstances. I didn’t feel all that comfortable going, to be honest, because I had never even met the deceased. I knew exactly one person at the entire event; a former student of mine who had lost her mom. I think that former student is pretty groovy, and I know from experience that losing a parent is pretty awful, so I went.
I didn’t do well. As I said, I knew one person, and while my former student seemed grateful to see me, my social anxiety kicked in and I didn’t really know what to say, and then my analytical side kicked in and I figured there was nothing I could say that might express the depth of emotion one might feel at losing a parent, so I said close to nothing. I lost my parents at 30 and 31, respectively, and I thought that was bad, but this amazing young person I know is still in high school, and what was I supposed to say? "Too soon!" was what came to mind, and while that was true, it didn't seem to help. And then, of course, other people also wanted to speak with my former student, and so I stood around like an idiot while a host of people wondered, “who’s that old bald guy and what the hell is he doing here?” So when I had a chance, I found my former student once more, gave her a hug, told her to let me know if there was anything I could do (I don’t know why we all say that; what exactly are we supposed to do?), and I left. I felt horrible about it, but by then, I didn’t know how to fix it, so I resigned myself to feeling horrible.
So Sunday, I put up Christmas lights. By all accounts, I put them up too soon, but I finished putting them up at noon or so, and I moved on to other things. I wrote for a while. I took a short nap. I took a shower. I read part of a book. I started cooking dinner. I grilled ocean bass and a pair of bison tenderloins. I cedar-planked the bass and indirect grilled for 40 minutes, added the bison with 20 minutes to go and indirect-grilled that, also, but added some apple chips to smoke things up a little bit.
It was the day after Daylight Savings Time; the sky was darkening as I grilled. It was the day after a celebration of life that wasn’t all that celebratory.
And then my Christmas lights came on.
And you know, the thing is--and I’m not writing this for any kind of dramatic effect but only because it’s true--by the time the lights came on I had kind of forgotten I put them up in the first place. I hadn’t really meant for them to come on–it was “too soon!”–but I left them plugged in just to make sure the timer worked and that everything would light up and the blue would be blue and the white would be white and the twinklies would twinkle, and then WHAM! There they were.
And you know what? I know I’m biased. But they were beautiful.
I don’t know why Christmas lights became a thing. The nearest I can think of is that somewhere back in time a guy in a mostly-Christian area was coming home drunk from the tavern after the sun went down, and he whacked his head on a tree branch, and some well-meaning and caring woman who was way out of this guy’s league but who had agreed to marry him anyway said, “Well, that never would have happened if you had put some lights on that,” and then she put him to bed and nursed his wounds and the next day–like all guys who marry out of their league–this fellow realized she was right, and a tradition was born.
(Please don’t bother to correct me in the comments; I know it probably didn’t happen this way. I also know I could Google it and find out more, but I’m tired of Google. Remember when we could just not know things? Remember when you could say, “I wonder how that started?” and a buddy would say, “Yeah, I wonder,” and you would say, “Huh,” and that would be the end of it? I miss those times. I’ll find out eventually, but for now, just let me live in the mystery.)
There are all kinds of opinions regarding holidays on social media. Some people think, “Too soon!” when it comes to Christmas, and some of those people start drinking Pumpkin Spice Whatevers in the middle of August, while others don’t put their Christmas tree up until December 24 but then leave it up until St. Patrick’s Day.
And you know what? Fine.
We’re about 20 months into a pandemic that has killed more Americans than any virus in history. We’ve endured lockdowns and social distancing. We’ve seen vaccines develop and people argue about whether we should take them or whether we shouldn’t. Some of us (at least, the responsible ones) are still masking and social distancing, even with two and sometimes three shots in our arms. And a beloved former student now goes to bed each night knowing her mother is no longer with us, and she isn’t even out of high school yet, and how in the world is any of this fair?
My Christmas lights came on while I was grilling. And when they did, I learned something: in life, there is no such thing as “too soon.” Life is short–sometimes painfully so–so it’s important to do your own thing while you can. If you want a Pumpkin Spice latte in July, have at it, you Halloween-loving fool; I don’t know why you pay $8 for pumpkin-flavored-sugared coffee, but hey, you do you. If you plan for Thanksgiving beginning November 1, have at it; just make extra stuffing in case I come around, and please don't skimp on the gravy. And if you’re hanging Christmas lights on November 7 or December 23, hang them well and enjoy them, because when you get right down to it, life’s too short to care about other people’s opinions; if you’re living your life for other people’s approval, you might not be doing it right.
And all of this might be a horrible lesson—certainly it is too little, too late, for a young person who thought I might have had all the answers in history class but realized I have way too few answers for life—but it seems that all I can offer is that when all is said and done, the best we can do is to let what little light we might have shine as brightly as possible. I tried to decorate my balcony; was it “too soon”? I don’t care. I tried to comfort a former student who was hurting; did I? I do care, but I can’t know; I worry that I did not, but hope that by being there my former student will know I adore her, and I tried with all the light I had at the time.
And so, my friends: Christmas or otherwise, let your lights shine, whenever you can, and let others judge you as they must (and no doubt will). Your light defines the limits of the shadow around you, blue or white or twinkly or not. That light may not illuminate everything you desire, and that's just the way of things, but sometime between the time you show up and the time you leave, it might burn just brightly enough to show someone else you cared.
That's enough, I hope. Even if you do things poorly--as I did on Saturday--it's better to do them poorly than not at all. If your lights are worn and faded and broken, replace them. And if you can't afford to replace them, let whatever is left shine as well as it can. You never know who might appreciate it, anyway.