This has to do with streets, I swear. Stay with me.
Thanks to a legally-binding joint custody agreement between my parents, we spent Christmas with my dad in Minnesota in the 90s- even though we lived in Indiana with mom. That expired when my sister turned 18 and college/post-secondary education moved us around. By the mid-2000s, my immediate family of mom, dad, sister, and I were in four different states in two time zones. My sister and I would talk every fall and pick a parent with whom to spend Christmas (usually Dad). The other would get Thanksgiving (usually Mom). Two families, two holidays. Perfect. The holidays, in my experience, have been about negotiations and traveling for as long as I can remember.
Enter the significant other(s). My husband’s parents are still married and when he and I met in ’09 all four of them were living in the same state. The location of “Home for the Holidays” was obvious for them and their Christmas traditions were 20 years running. One year, in an effort to accommodate this change, I made a spreadsheet to try to fit this third location into the rotation. As an engineer this was one of the first times I was faced with the reality that you can’t actually solve every problem with a spreadsheet. This added wrinkle in schedule negotiations for me- or the need to negotiate at all for him- was the biggest source of conflict in our relationship. I hated it. All the ads, movies, and my in-laws genuine enjoyment of each others company made my complicated family seem…less than. And then, if my sister was seeing someone with family in yet another state- forget it. So with that backdrop…
Enter the lights. Thanks to the axial tilt of our planet that makes our seasons possible, this emotionally-charged, impossible, unavoidable time of year also happens in the freaking dark. On December 21, here in Minneapolis, we get a whopping 8 hours, 46 minutes, and 12 seconds of daylight. The earliest sunset is actually on December 9, when my light-sensing display will turn itself on at 4:31 pm (click here for what that’s about). Or even earlier if it’s cloudy! The only thing that seems to get me through walking or biking down a street in late December is the Christmas lights. I’m partial to communities that take the time to wrap lights down each branch of the trees. Now that I’m a home owner, I’m thrilled to be able to contribute to this literal light in the darkness. This is also why I feel 100% justified in leaving the outdoor display up until at least February. We have to make it over that dark, depressing, lonely hump known as January. Here’s what we’ve done this year:
It’s a Santa, not a supernova, I swear
After years of renting, my feelings about being able to light the street are akin to my sheer joy at shoveling snow. I get to help! Nobody is going to be depressed or slip on my patch of sidewalk. The bushes we planted last year to eventually give us a little privacy on the porch have grown big enough this year to hold a 50-bulb strand of lights. I’m so proud of them; we’re hoping next year they’ll graduate to 100s. I did some extension cord wangling to get power out to them that makes me feel kind of like Clark Griswold. I obviously need to put a lower output bulb in Santa (that’s what that glowing mass on the porch is). Putting the big tree in the picture window this year means it’s visible from the street.
The tree, from inside the house.
Now if it would only snow and cover up the cords- and give me a reason to shovel…
I don’t know if I still hate Christmas as much as I did five years ago. All four of us on my side are in the same state now, so December 25th isn’t quite as high-stakes as it was. It’s the in-laws with four people in three states, but they’re managing. And my dedication to illumination, decoration, and generally improved “Christmas spirit” seem to offset the homesickness for my husband. It’s still an awful lot of pressure to be happy, but at least with better lighting it’s a little easier to not be sad. Also, I gotta figure out a way to light that peak next year without falling and breaking my neck.
Haha! It has snowed since I originally drafted this post! The bushes look *way* better with a little snow on them.
Thanks for bringing this up! Each home we’ve owned I’ve been eager to be able to hang lights during the darkest season. A decade ago and earlier I had heavy guilt over the hit to my electricity bill, when warm color LEDs arrived I was an early adopter, but the brightening of the public street on our poorly-lit street I felt is just necessary.
Few of the other homes on my street even turn on the light on the front of their home. When our street was reconstructed about five years ago, at the public hearing some neighbors voiced requests for the city to add street lights mid block because of how dark it gets. Hearing that gave me further incentive to hang lights in winter.
But I’m a sucker for articles about how Norwegians handle the long dark season and how they use light. The placing of lights in windows, especially the windows seen from the streets, is something I’d like to see be adopted in Minnesota beyond placing trees in the window.
Lights make the winter so much better! I have white lights inside my apartment’s living room; I start using them as soon as it gets dark earlier, and I keep using them long past Christmas. (I don’t really celebrate Christmas anyway.) I wrote an ode to lights as part of Grease Rag’s Loving Winter series last year: http://greaserag.org/user_blogs/greaseragguest/day-7-of-loving-winter-2016/
After writing this, I remembered all the apartment/condo based light displays that I also love. While a strand of lights on a balcony 20 stories up probably isn’t going to give me a lot of ambient light on the street below – it does humanize the large buildings quite a bit.
Wow. Your story is one I’ve heard too often but your ending is so much better and encouraging. Thanks for writing it.
And cheers! to leaving Christmas lights up through Feburary! We and most of our neighbors do, including those who escape to warmer climates for part of the time. Many of us also turn them on in the morning from about 5a -7a. They do so very much brighten up the street and make it feel more welcoming.
Riding a bicycle through cities in Europe this time of year, even in cold and snow, is quite enjoyable simply for all of the decorations they put up. I wish our cities hadn’t all stopped decorating.
I have a strand of miniature lantern lights on my porch that I leave up, year-round. They have small, nightlight-type bulbs (size C7). Most of the time the bulbs are clear/white but I sometimes change the color of the bulbs, depending on the time of year. Currently, I have multicolored lights. They are on a dawn to dusk timer.
The multicolored lights remind me of the Christmases of my childhood. We had those big, old-fashioned bulbs that burned your skin if you brushed up against them. On Halloween, I like to use flickering flame bulbs, for that ‘mad scientist’ look. I keep saying I’m going to put red lights up for Valentine’s Day, but it’s so cold in February, I’ve never actually done it. But I think I like the plain,white lights the best because they remind me of Tivoli Gardens!
Thanks for posting your story.
This is great, Hannah. I love looking at porch trim lights! Less is more sometimes, though. That nuclear santa might be a bit much.
I loved this line when I first read it: “As an engineer this was one of the first times I was faced with the reality that you can’t actually solve every problem with a spreadsheet.”
And I still love it as I read it again tonight. So nice chatting with you & Eric tonight at the fundraiser.