Some things we cannot duplicate where I live. We will never celebrate Christmas inside a picture postcard. We have no winter wonderland, though once, inspired by a snowfall seen on the black-and-white television, I did scrape a handful of ice from the inside of the freezer to throw at my brother. By the time I got to him, all I had to fling was a handful of rain.
What we do have is electricity. As long as the Tennessee Valley Authority can light up the southern night with strands of color, shining from every mansion and mobile home, twinkling round the baby Jesus, they can have their white Christmas. I have seen lights encircling hay bales, hung on rusty tractors, and wrapped around mailbox posts. In the country, you need a whole lot of extension cord to electrify a mailbox.
I have seen them strung across the grilles of Peterbilt trucks. My mother never takes down her lights, strung on a cedar beam in the living room, though she does unplug them eventually. The rich folks have switched to white lights, a lot of them, to be elegant. But it will always be lights of color, shining through a night that smells of cut pine and woodsmoke, that mean Christmas to me.
I find it especially hard not to live in the past at this time of year, when I would do anything to see the world like a child again. It is why I fill the refrigerator every December with chocolate-covered cherries and watch, for the hundredth time, those oddly animated 50-year-old Christmas specials about Kris Kringle and the evil Burgermeister and the elf who wanted to be a dentist.
It is important that some things stay the same—that, at some point this season, someone will say, “We’re goin’ to look at Christmas lights. Wanna come?”
I go sometimes and sometimes just say no. It is enough to know someone is going. I have a fine memory stashed away of the lights; I do not want it to grow less than it was by heaping a Walmart’s worth of new lights on it.
I remember it was first grade, and the big, ramshackle house we lived in, just for that winter, was haunted. I was afraid of that house at night. It creaked, and the wind hissed around the eaves. One cold evening, my aunts came by to take us for a ride in an old Chevrolet, rescuing us.
As we drove through the foothills, my face pressed against the window, I saw that the very dark had been conquered, chased away by miles of light, tracing the outlines of ragged trailers and leaning frame houses. Now and then, one of my aunts would mutter “Their light bill’s gonna be high” over the Christmas songs on the radio, and I went to sleep that way. Later, someone carried me inside. I remember I was embarrassed by that; I was a big boy. But the women in my family are strong.
I wish you a merry Christmas and a very hefty light bill.