C hristmas one of my favorite times of year, which is surprising, considering the emotional trauma it brings.
Most Christmas trauma, I’m convinced, is brought on by Christmas traditions. No season is so fraught with activities we all participate in, even though we usually don’t know where these activities came from, or how they got started. One of these is Christmas lights.
No one knows why Americans decorate their trees, homes, vehicles, dogs, and children with lights during the Christmas season. An internet search will claim the habit began in 18th century Germany, when 18th century Germans started decorating their trees with candles during the holiday. If the Germans imported their candles from China, the way we import our Christmas lights, I doubt they worked very well. One candle goes out, they all go out, etc.
Fine and good, but that doesn’t explain how lights ended up on every available surface in our lives. Decorating trees is one thing, but now we put lights on our eaves, around our windows, all over our yards, roofs, fences, and even lawn statuary. Granted, the lights are tiny, but when you have a bazillion of them they add up. Americans use, on average, 20 percent more electricity during the Christmas season than they do the rest of the winter. ’Tis the season to be jouley.
Besides running up our electric bills, Christmas lights offer us the festive, holiday spirit of the fire hazard. More house fires occur during December than any other month of the year, on average. Some of these, of course, are chimney fires, and some are caused by space heaters, but Christmas lights account for their fair share—which isn’t surprising, considering that some folks decorate like Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation.
Just the act of hanging the lights can be dangerous. Climbing ladders, operating staple guns, and walking around on roofs is always risky, but it’s even more hazardous when it’s cold and it starts to get dark early and homeowners begin to run out of time to get their lights up. Most of us work, after all, and there are only so many Saturdays in a week. Christmas waits for no man—or woman.
If the lights don’t get you, the Christmas food will. No other holiday is so delicious as Christmas, although Thanksgiving runs it a close second.
In our family, Christmas is the only time we see certain foods, and all these special Christmas dishes are made with one common, ubiquitous ingredient—calories. We have pecan pie and buttermilk pie and coconut pie and cakes and cookies year-round, but we have far more of them during the Christmas holidays, in both variety and quantity.
We also add divinity, date loaf, fudge, pecan brittle, pralines, chocolate covered peanuts, and plenty of other holiday candies. If you can’t get fat with us at Christmastime, you’re just not trying.
My favorite Christmas tradition, however, is the Christmas tree. When I was a kid we always had a real tree, which my dad would go out and cut and bring home. Since we lived in Central Texas the tree was always a juniper, what we called a cedar tree, and it wasn’t really a tree, but an oversized bush. It was generally short and roundish and insolent looking, although my dad was always careful to choose a tree which could be viewed from any angle and still look thin.
This tree would be hauled to the house, squeezed through the front door, and stood in a five-gallon metal bucket in the living room. We wedged rocks into the bucket around the bole, which kept the tree standing upright until no one was looking. Then it would slowly topple over. We usually had to lean the tree up in a corner, where it brooded insolently.
Mom always put water in the bucket, to keep the tree “fresh,” and the bucket always leaked. My brother and I helped decorate the tree, which guaranteed a festive hideousness that can only be achieved by adolescent children.
The lights we used were old, with frayed wires and huge bulbs that got too hot to touch, and were liable to set the tree on fire if left on too long. The whole experience was marvelous.
That’s what Christmas traditions are. They’re expensive, dangerous, fattening, and tacky, and I love every single one of them.
During this festive holiday season, I would like to offer a sincere, heartfelt Merry Christmas to all TF&G readers everywhere. I hope you find wonderful gifts under your tree and delicious food on your table. I hope you are able to spend time with your friends and those members of your family with who you are still on speaking terms. I hope all your favorite football teams win, or at least don’t lose too badly. And I hope you fill your freezer with tasty, healthy venison, quail, turkey, and whatever else you hunt.
Email Kendal Hemphill at [email protected]