CHRISTMAS LIGHTS ARE NOT FOR PERFECTIONISTS
David C. Hughes
I love hanging Christmas lights on my house every year. Or, more accurately, I love having hung Christmas lights. Like Dorothy Parker said about writing: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Perspective is all a matter of verb tense. But I do enjoy the result of my efforts, especially the thrill of pushing the button on the remote, a feeling that disappears the instant I discover the bulb clinging to the pinnacle of my 28-foot peak has burned out. Yes, sometimes I think Christmas lights are not for perfectionists . . . .
I admit to being a bit perfectionistic. Okay, okay, I’m CDO. Like the popular T-shirt says, that’s OCD in alphabetical order. I’m a fringe member of the grammar police, an obsessed purveyor of unsolicited verbal correction, a skill only my editing service clients and other writers appreciate. I’m a fanatical speller with little patience for the orthographically impaired, and I consider Spellcheck to be the worst kind of enabler–when it flags one of my words I merely look down my nose at the red squiggly highlight, right click on the offending word, and add it to my dictionary. Because it really is spelled correctly; Microsoft just got it wrong. I’m a hopeless neat freak and pile straightener, and I embrace the beauty and systematic order of mathematics, especially geometry. My house has a 12-pitch roof, ensuring nothing but 45- and 90-degree angles in its elevations. I believe life should be plumb, level, and square, and that includes Christmas lights. Especially Christmas lights.
One of my family’s favorite activities during the holiday season is to drive around the area and inspect, uh, I mean, revel in the houses lit up with Christmas lights and embellished with blow-up decorations. I love to see homes adorned with consistent patterns of red and white lights strung neatly in straight lines up gables, along gutters, and down corners. It warms my heart to witness spectacular roof ridges illuminated in pure white lights evenly spaced for our viewing pleasure. Those are aha moments for me, ones that, for the most part, make up for those other displays thrown up (literally) on houses by owners who obviously spit on the sacredness of order. If Jesus had really wanted us to display random sequences of multi-colored bulbs on our houses, He would have made us all color blind. Even my six-year-old, Hannah, understands what a pattern is. Red-green-yellow-orange-blue-red-green-yellow-orange-blue is a pattern! Red-green-yellow-yellow-yellow-dead-orange-purple-white-pink is not a pattern! Pink isn’t even a Christmas color, for goodness sake! Take that bulb out and use it at Easter time, to illuminate your blow up bunny or something. Jeez!
When I install my lights, every C9 has to hang at a consistent angle from the gutters or shingles, and the tip of each bulb mustn’t touch the fascia board. Each one has to be spaced exactly the same distance from the other bulb to present a consistent and pleasing line to the viewer’s eye. Nothing saddens me more than seeing bulbs unevenly-spaced and inconsistently-angled. If you’re not gonna do it right, don’t do it at all! And worse than randomly-spaced lights is randomly-dead ones, those dark spots that suck all our attention away from the luminosity of the live ones, no matter how aesthetically pleasing. Might as well plug a black hole into your Christmas cheer. Now, I can understand finding a dead bulb after a hard day of fastening lights to your house, but allowing one to linger for longer than two or three days should be a violation of the Christmas light hangers code, punishable by a fine of up to 10,000 candy canes.
And what’s up with wrapping mature trees part-way up the trunk instead of all the way to the crest? At night they look like ghostly figures of topped mulberry trees rising from a yuletide graveyard, glowing from the pain of their decapitation. How much more impactful it would be to turn the canopy into a nascent star right in your very own front yard. Now that would be a display I could stand back and applaud. On the other hand, what’s the deal with throwing one strand of lights into a sapling like a seign net and calling it good? It’s like Halloween toilet papering, only brighter. Alas . . . Christmas lights are just not for perfectionists.
It normally takes me two days to hang my Christmas lights, and when I’m in the zone, I can be impatient, focused, and terse. That’s why Mary holds the ladder: she knows she’ll be at least 20 feet away from me the whole time, and she’s on the edge of my 33,510.3 cubic foot sphere of perfection. God help her if I drop my protractor through that electrically-charged bubble and have to climb down to retrieve it from the tangle of rose bushes. Mary usually averts her eyes to keep from turning into a pillar of salt.
This season I caved in and finally bought the 360 feet of C9’s needed to line the driveway and front sidewalk. I’d purchased the bulb hangers on clearance two or three years ago, but never wanted to spend the money on the 15 boxes of lights required to finish the job. This year, however, Home Depot offered a discount toward the purchase of a new string of LED bulbs in exchange for returning an old string of incandescents. We literally brought a bin full of old icicle lights to Home Depot and ended up buying the new boxes of multi-colored C9’s without breaking the budget. That evening, after we got home, I installed the first set of lights using the bulb hangers as pins rather than hangers because the bulbs didn’t seat securely in the bracket. Satisfied with the first string, I put the rest on hold until the weather shaped up enough to finish the job. That happened to be the week of Thanksgiving.
First, Mary offered to help; she should have known better. So with a ruler in one hand and a string of lights and hooks in the other, I traipsed across the front yard to connect the next string of bulbs to the one I’d already laid out.
“Pin each bulb exactly 16 inches from the edge of the driveway,” I instructed, holding up the ruler and tapping the number 16. “No more, no less.” I turned her loose while I walked back to the garage to unbox and test additional lights. When I returned to the jobsite, I immediately noticed something was askew. I grabbed the ruler to check my wife’s work.
“Uh, sweetie?” I said, pointing to a bulb. “This one’s 17 inches from the edge of the driveway.”
“That’s close to 16,” she replied.
“Uh, no. 16 inches is close. 17 is not.” She soon excused herself and I didn’t see her for the rest of the afternoon.
The day after Thanksgiving, Mary’s sister, Laura, said she’d like to spend time outside, so I solicited her help to finish lining the driveway and sidewalk. She agreed, and I showed her the ropes. But she also left the jobsite soon after and never came back. Five hours later, I finished stringing the lights all by myself. And I have to say they were perfect!
As I mentioned, I love having hung my Christmas lights, but I don’t necessarily enjoy installing them as much as I enjoy the final result. Sometimes I look at all those lights nested neatly in their bins, fresh from the attic, and wonder why I put myself through this every year instead of just joining the pagans and leaving my house dark. I think it’s because of the magic. I remember how excited I was watching Dad brave the brutal December weather in upstate New York as he strung the three or four strands of beat-up, scratched multi-colored bulbs around our picture window. Despite the work, I owe that to Hannah. I love her squeal of delight when we light up the house for the first time after I snap the last bulb in place. I love the pure magic when she counts to three and I secretly press the ON button, how she believes she’s the one illuminating the lights simply by counting. I love driving around the neighborhoods to look at Christmas displays and to witness how many people embrace the season with such enthusiasm; their efforts are a gift not for themselves but for others, strangers they’ll never meet but have blessed nonetheless.
Despite my perfectionism, Christmas is all about magic, blessing others, and making memories. And because Santa, the ultimate perfectionist, never skips a house filled with folks whose hearts believe in the Ultimate Christmas Light: Jesus. Even if the third bulb from the left on the tallest gable is burned out.
Copyright © 2013, David C. Hughes