So often do lighting displays' rickety natures or excessiveness lead to anxiety that it takes no effort to misread a haphazardly copyedited 1995 article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visitors to Atlanta's Starr Park, the article claimed, would encounter "a playground area decorated with lighted reindeer."
A brush with danger, followed by a sense of relief: looking at Christmas lights is a slap and then a kiss. I remember sitting in a café in the Piazza della Rotonda, in Rome, some years ago, half of my then-boyfriend Jess's face illuminated by a fiery crimson glow from a string of Christmas lights hanging on the building's front. The slash of red slicing across his face gave him the look of an angry elf or of the "before and after" picture in an infomercial for satanic rituals. I couldn't reconcile the shaky, blood-evocative light with Jess's button-down temperament and oxford shirt, nor with the magisterial, late-evening hush of the piazza and its dusty stone monuments.
But then I looked across the square at the centuries-old Pantheon and thought of ancient Rome. I thought, Centurions, pillaging, vino. I thought, Bacchanalia, bonfires. Just then, it all came together for me.
And what of my mother and Christmas? The electric candles have long since been lost. A few years back, Mom moved to a retirement community in Durham, North Carolina, whose gift shop she manages. She recently told me, "Last year I hung all my Christmas lights and swags in the shop. But afterward I was too lazy to put them away in boxes, so they're all in my bathtub now."
This month, these bulbs and boughs and wreaths will decorate the gift shop again, but Mom and I will be in Key West. We're excited about the prospect of Floridian holiday excess, and we're fairly certain the island will cough up some high-level twinkle.
I told Mom that last year's festivities there included a Harbor Walk of Lights, a lighted boat parade, a vodka-company-sponsored tour of decorated Victorian guesthouses, and an underwater light display. She weighed in with, "Their decorating committee is very active." Christmas will once more shine Mylar-bright.
There will definitely be enough candles.