The other night I was watching the now iconic holiday movie, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Somewhere between the time the always wacky Griswold family obtains a Christmas tree only Paul Bunyan could use but before clueless Uncle Louis fries the ginormous evergreen with his cigar, the film’s perpetually befuddled and clumsy hero Clark W. Griswold takes on an “exterior illumination” holiday decorating project of his house that could serve as a landing beacon for an extraterrestrial invasion force. Using an extension ladder and a trusty staple gun, Clark somehow manages to coat the place in 25,000 lights.
Not exactly sustainability at work — then again the movie was made in the 1980s and sustainability had yet to be invented and no one cared about energy conservation. Times certainly change.
It was merely coincidence that “Christmas Vacation” was aired on a night when we completed our own outdoor holiday decor labors for this Christmas season. Actually to characterize it as a “we” effort radically misstates the case. This exterior lighting gig is my wife Roselee’s passion project. She devises it. She chooses the items to be presented. She handles what plugs in where. And when Christmas is over, she carefully packs it all way in the garage in labeled containers with strands of light neatly contained on rollers. My jobs are mainly moving items out of and into the garage, ensuring that things on stakes are set deeply into the ground and then getting the hell out of the way. Believe me when I say that this is absolutely the wisest course of action on my part.
So yeah, Roselee could fairly be called the Clark W. Griswold of our house. Me? I’m clueless Uncle Louis, only without the cigar.
This phenomenon developed over time. We weren’t always one of those houses — the places people pass by during the holidays and gawk. We’ve been married for 21 years. For the first dozen or so of those years we hardly had any outdoor Christmas presence at all. Much of our holiday time during the years we lived on the North Carolina coast was spent on a makeshift Christmas tree lot operated by Roselee’s father. Selling trees was his annual holiday passion project and nearby family members took part in the operation and sales. Any time not spent at our jobs was usually spent selling Christmas trees and the wreaths handmade by “Papa Joe.” It was a nice little family operation that often involved a lot of yelling by Roselee’s dad, but a ton of laughs and good memories. People in Swansboro rather liked buying trees from the person they fondly called “that old Italian man.” The irony? Papa Joe sold a couple hundred Christmas trees a year but only had one inside his house and decorated when Roselee still lived with him.
Our first year of marriage — 1997 — we lived in Cape Carteret, North Carolina. Of course we had one of Papa Joe’s homemade wreaths on display outdoors. Then we purchased a pair of three-foot wooden Santas made by a chainsaw artist who worked by the roadside in Cedar Point. Drinking Budweiser all day long, he precariously produced art for sale using a chainsaw to carve up trees damaged by hurricanes. At that time, he had no shortage of materials. We placed them at the entrance to the stairs to our front porch in Cape Carteret and still have them today perched near the entrance to the front stoop of our home in Burlington.
And that was pretty much it in terms of outdoor Christmas presence — until we moved to Burlington in 2007. Oh, we started small. The first few years we mainly added more wreaths to our carved St. Nicks. We had a wreath over the garage, on multiple windows, the front door and below the mailbox. In 2011, a year after Papa Joe passed away, we found an old holiday inflatable he used a couple of years at his Christmas tree lot. For some reason he called it, “John,” because, he said, “What else are you gonna call it?” Uh, I don’t know, “Santa?” we asked. It was such an enduring and funny family story we decided to put it up in our lawn in Burlington.
John the Inflatable Santa stepped up our game quite a bit and made our house at least a place people might take a quick look during December. Then, on at least one late December afternoon, Roselee saw a family walking through the neighborhood checking out the decorated homes. The dad was pulling a lighted wagon that contained his young daughter, who appreciated the vision of John the Inflatable Santa. That planted a seed in Roselee’s mind. Perhaps we should become sort of one of “those” houses. It might be worth it to fuel the Christmas dreams of kids of all ages.
Sadly, John went the way of all inflatables. We found him one morning like this, suitable for a police chalk outline of a murder victim. He could not be resuscitated.
As it turned out, in John’s timely demise a new tradition was reborn. We haven’t been without exterior lights since. Roselee’s vision at first was small. But like anything else, holiday decorating has an addictive quality. After lights are placed in one spot, Roselee saw another, and then another that needed to be addressed. She added wire-mesh trees with lights, candy cane lights, garland around the front door with lights, a cardinal with lights. Over the years she’s purchased lights to go on shrubbery, to wrap around pieces of art or statuary and colorful lights around a small planting area in the front yard. A couple of years ago my brother, a collector of folk art and other curiosities, gave us a Nativity scene comprised of wooden cutouts of Peanuts cartoon characters. Peanuts, of course, is a favorite of Roseelee’s. I got a Grinch. Gotta love the Grinch.
Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff.
These days it’s a tradition for us — mainly Roselee — to assemble all of this for the pleasure of those passing by. Part of the tradition is adding something new each year. Roselee decided for Christmas of 2018 she would pay homage to the vision that started her holiday lights project. She saw a little wagon with lights and decided to add it to the yard with some oversized ornaments (I told her not to ask the store clerk if he had “big balls.”) and some Fraser fir greenery inside it.
Sunday night we held our lighting ceremony. While far short of a Griswoldian vision, it’s not bad at all. And when Roselee turns it on (with just the flip of one button), there is no “uh-oh, why doesn’t this work” moment. She knows what she doing.
Maybe this coming week we’ll see for the first time what all of this looks like in the snow.