Saturday, January 7, 2012


I stepped outside the other night to walk our Cairn Terrier and noticed that all the neighbors, seemingly in unison, had turned off the Christmas lights still on their houses and lawns. In an apparent conspiracy folks that had their lights turned on, literally from dusk to dawn, shut them down entirely that second day of January.

Outside of that intrigue our lights continued to blaze from dusk to around midnight and thanks to a timer, it wasn’t a manual chore. Only Rudolf with his nose so bright required some manual dexterity and an extra red bulb from time to time. Our lights, out of schedule and manpower demands, came down on January 5, one day short of Epiphany, the day that many folks dismantle their Christmas decorations. Ironically Epiphany is known in ancient history as the Day of the Lights, so maybe, just maybe, we’re jumping the gun?

While pondering the why and wherefores of that shut down my memory kicked in with visions of McAdenville, North Carolina which for 56 consecutive years has bedecked and lit up their mill town justifying their well-earned, Charles Kuralt-anointed title - Christmas Town USA. Located just off I-85 fifteen miles west of Charlotte in Gaston County, McAdenville caught the Christmas bug and has been attracting visitors from all over the world to their elaborate and brilliantly lit village. It’s worth the trip around Christmastime though be prepared for long lines of cars travelling verrrrrry slowwwwwwly… As you might imagine some travelers don’t appreciate the annual 300K+ cars that survey McAdenville’s Christmas offerings. Though once you have done the tour, then forget and get stuck in traffic on I85 adjacent to McAdenville during their festival, say two years later, you can only smile and conjure a been there, done that thought remembering how special that experience was. Mind you, this is no pyrotechnic or electronic extravaganza, just the true Spirit of Christmas, lots of imagination and good fun.

There are other towns across the country that along with commercial ventures, botanic gardens and landmarks have lit up their homes and businesses, witness Austin’s Trail of Lights, Leavenworth, Washington, Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, Callaway Gardens in Georgia and many, many more. For fear of divine reprisal we also need mention the long famous Holiday Trail of Lights, which encompasses many north Louisiana and east Texas towns with Natchitoches, Louisiana marking its 85th year of lighting up. If you’re not satisfied yet, google Holiday Trail of Lights to see the extent of the lighting festivals and celebrations across the country.

So why the tradition? Why light at all?

Seems that the modern tradition started with the invention of the light bulb which rapidly spread throughout the world after someone figured out how to string those lights together. Before electricity they were using lit candles on trees with predictable results. Well before then, though, it was the custom in most societies from Africa and Asia to Europe to bring light into the darkest part of the year any way they could. The Ancients did that by bonfires and Yule logs which when lit symbolized light and life-giving properties of the returning sun – all in the bleak midwinter.

Seems we are all still playing copy-cat to the Pagans of ancient times and, for me, that’s just fine. The anthropologist in me says that it’s good to perpetuate these traditions borne out of belief in a higher power(s) and pure unadulterated superstition that these lights will coax the sun and warm weather to return. Factored in is our aesthetics and sense of creativity – a real amusement and basic fascination with light in all its myriad forms that turns the dreary and dark winter to light and hope.

Our modern motivations seem to stem from all the above though we suspect that most of us (especially here in Texas) have great confidence that the sun will return, if not with a vengeance, no matter what we do – Neo-Wiccans, Druids, Aztecs and Maya please take note. We have to mention the age old and fierce competitions - Keeping Up With The Jones (KUWJ) and the Mine Is Bigger Than Yours (MIBTY) syndromes that seem to affect so many in our culture. We have seen displays that surely would blind even Rudolf and were it not for solar power these light displays would probably cause more rolling blackouts here in Texas. Some over-the-top light displays are even mobile and synched to music prompting us to wonder what the future bodes.

The question still begs – when to put the lights up and take them down?

For most of us the Christmas season begins with Advent on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Most commercial ventures out of necessity jump the gun and put up their decorations and lights the start of November. We note that Walt Disney World officially kicked off the Christmas holiday season last year on November 4th with most other businesses following suit. With some exceptions most will light their homes up around Thanksgiving. Since the lights are also intended to be like The Star (or comet or planets in synch), a harbinger of The Great Birth, that works for us.

Let it be said that I have never deferred to Rome on any issue though noted that the soon to be sainted Pope John Paul II left his Christmas decorations (and the Vatican’s) up until February 2, the occasion of Candlemas which commemorates the purification of Mary after giving birth and the presentation of Jesus in The Temple. Candlemas has traditionally marked the conclusion of the liturgical Christmas season, even for us Episcopalians. Yes, I was raised in and remain – High Church.

Pope Benedict XVI, however, in the predictable practice of The Catholic Church (sarcastic snarl) has seen fit to change and reinterpret that tradition (another reform?) and now takes down the Vatican lights on January 11 to wit, “that the Baptism of the Lord, now marks the end of the Christmas period for the Vatican.” All this while admitting that Candlemas liturgically, “remains a part of the Church’s observance.” Not everybody is happy about this and many devout Catholics, despite the Pope’s apparent contraryism, continue the tradition of celebrating Christmas for the full 40 days between Christmas and The Presentation - whatever. Bottom line – many leave their lights and Christmas trees up until February 2nd. Admittedly, many more will take them down around January 6th – Epiphany.

I think most people aren’t following any liturgy or schedule and frankly do what’s expedient and comfortable for them or what is demanded by some asinine homeowner’s association covenants (“remove 30 days of the event”). A Friend who lives nearby recently confided that the Christmas light shutdown in our neighborhood was probably more motivated by trash pickup day than anything else though the pick-up didn’t happen until the 6th – Hmmm

I was reminded that the great light take down in our northern climes including northern neighbor Canada are really dependent on the weather. Many lights get frozen onto the houses and gutters and all one can do is wait till spring - practicality rules. For those of us in sunnier and warmer climes we recommend that you do it when motivated and on a warm day. We unlike one, “prince of darkness” do not abide the application of a “trash” mentality or social inferiority label if you choose to keep your lights on to February 2nd. In fact, we applaud your decision and encourage its practice.

Indeed, we invoke the memory and practices of one Betty Buxton who for many years left her extraordinary Christmas tree and decorations up till July 1st and the occasion of her now legendary Christmas in July parties when the tree was finally put to rest for six months. Mother loved the Christmas season and for her it never ended with each day a celebration of Life, Family, Friends and an understanding of the real meaning of the holiday. We should all remember like Mother to Keep Christmas with us throughout the entire year, lights or not.


Ned Buxton

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