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Christmas Tales From My Less Than Idyllic Youth

Blame Lileks. I was going to leave the whole white lights/colored lights issue alone until he brought it up today.

I am a Christmas purist and as such, my decorating sensibilities demand colored lights. If you have nothing but white lights on your house, I will suspect that you also have your tree decorated in some weird Victorian rose scheme, with nary a Christmas color to be found.

I wrote this last year and it still stands:

Yes, yes, yes. The big, primary colored lights. The ones that made your neighborhood like a box of Crayola crayons. The ones that lit up the snow with their colors. REAL CHRISTMAS LIGHTS! Not these sissified, oh so tasteful, prim and proper lights. What the hell is that? It looks like you've just left some lights on so your kids could find their way home. From the woods. The dark, evil woods. Where you left them as a sacrifice to the Christmas Light Spirit. But the Christmas Light Spirit didn't want them. You know why? BECAUSE YOU HAVE WHITE LIGHTS ON YOUR HOUSE!

In a (my) perfect Christmas world, everyone would have oversized, electricity-sucking colored bulbs on their houses. Red, blue, green and yellow. It would be snowing all the time; fluffy, soft snow that piles on the lawn and fences, creating a picturesque scene that is worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting. The glow of the colored bulbs would reflect off the snow, giving the entire street the effect of being bathed in wide swatches of color. We would all don our rubber boots and hooded parkas and trudge through the streets, our feet making crunching sounds as they packed down the foot or more of snow with each step. And that would be the only sound you hear for a while - no trucks or cars or snowblowers, just the crunch, crunch, crunching of snow underfoot and the occasional giggle of a small child who captures a snowflake on his tongue. Later, you would be able to hear the soft, off key voices of those children as they went door to door, serenading the neighbors with Christmas carols in exchange for mugs of hot chocolate, held in hands covered with snow crusted woolen mittens.

And then all the kids would go home to their respective houses and put on their feetie pajamas and sit around the fireplace while their parents read Christmas stories to them.

It's Pleasantville, with colored lights, and it's all based on my childhood. Well, loosely based. Very loosely based.

We always intended our forays into Christmas caroling to be idyllic, in an innocent, 1950's kind of way. We had good intentions. We had the parkas and the rubber boots and the off key voices. We just didn't have the right amount of Wally and the Beaver in us to pull it off correctly.

Our trudging through the neighborhood was not quiet at all. We were like a pack of rabid dogs who turned on each other. Lori wanted to stand in front all the time because she thought - mistakenly - that she had a beautiful singing voice. She was the only one who couldn't hear that her whispery vocal stylings sounded more like helium escaping from a balloon than Roberta Flack (Lori's rendition of Killing Me Softly was to die for. Literally). So Lori would run up ahead of us, trying to gain the coveted spot of bell-ringer and first soprano. The boys would pelt her with snowballs as she ran ahead and more often than not, Lori would end up face down in a foot of snow, crying that we were just jealous of her.

Our intentions were to hit at least five houses a night. We knew our neighbors weren't that keen on carolers and instead of making us hot chocolate, they would just hand each of us a quarter - usually mid song - and give us a faint smile as they closed the door on our efforts. Which was all we wanted. A few quarters a night, pooled together, meant a trip to Murray's and candy for everyone.

Murray was an old man who ran a small candy/cigarette/expired milk store on the corner. We would have much preferred to go to 7-11, but none of us were allowed to cross the big, bad street to get there. So we settled for Murray's, where the Bazooka gum often had teeth marks courtesy of Murray's snarling, vicious, child hating dog.

We once hit upon the idea of singing Christmas carols to Murray. We thought it would soften his heart, as if life were nothing but a sappy tv movie and we were writing the script. When we burst into his store singing Silent Night, Murray shrank back in horror. I had a vision of Murray as the wicked witch, melting under Dorothy's thrown water.

"I'm a Jew, you idiots! A Jew!" Gloria stepped forward, staring down Murray. "Yea, well, Ricki and Larry and Jews and they're singing!" She pointed to the siblings who were now staring at the floor. "Well, they should be ashamed of themselves. Get out of my store, now!" Gloria stared at Murray defiantly. She was the oldest of all of us and moved to the suburbs straight from some crime-ridden pocket in Queens. Leader of the Pack, complete with black leather jacket. She sneered at Murray. "Face it, Murray. You just don't like us singing because we're happy and you're not." The old man stared silently at us. I immediately began forming this scenario in mind in which Murray would say that Gloria was right, he was lonely and unhappy and maybe the beautiful children of the neighborhood who had voices like golden angels and hearts filled with love and charity would look kindly upon this old man and forgive him all his transgressions, including rancid milk and dog-chewed gum. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah, everyone! And we'd all hug and do a rousing rendition of Dreidel, Dreidel for Murray while the neighbors poured out of their houses to join us.

Murray spat at Gloria. Spat! The wad missed her by a few inches and landed on the counter. The dog came over and licked it up. We marched out of the store in single file and everyone laughed at Murray's lame attempt at spitting except for me. I was dejected. I wanted Murray's heart to grow three times its size! I think that was a subtle beginning to my career as a cynic.

So we trudged on, making our way through the gray, slush snow which no longer crunched under our feet, thanks to a light drizzle and heavy local traffic. Our rubber boots went squish on the way down and sounded something like a plunger being removed from a toilet bowl on the way up. Squish. Pop. Squish. Pop. Almost in unison, a marching band of wet, freezing kids who just wanted to spread some holiday cheer and maybe make a buck or two in the process.

Lori was the one who insisted on going to Scott's house. Scott was the grade school equivalent of the high school quarterback. King of the playground, center of the lunchroom, best looking kid in any K-6 school for miles around. Lori, who fancied herself the female version of Scott, had been trying to convince Scott that they would make a lovely couple. Scott, all of eleven years old at the time, still hadn't made the transition from swapping baseball cards to swapping spit. Lori, meanwhile, had been queen of Spin the Bottle since third grade. It was her contention that she would make Scott her boyfriend and teach him a thing or two about what it means to be a man. Lori was a girl ahead of her time, mature in ways that were dangerous. She had grown tits before any of the girls in school. Even the sixth grade girls were jealous of Lori's bulging shirt. Lori had a habit of wearing her coat open wide even when it was freezing out. She wore shirts that accentuated her womanhood and whispers around the fourth grade were that Lori had even gotten her period already. She was a woman. A woman! And it was only right that a woman had a man and Scott, who had the faintest hint of facial hair and whose voice was already changing, was the prime candidate.

So we headed over toward's Scott's house. On the way there, Lori lectured us about the caroling protocol. She would ring the bell. She would stand in front. She would sing all the key verses to Rudolph, while we did the background vocals. We were about to fight her on all issues, but Gloria silenced us with a glare. Whatever. We'd just let Lori have her way, collect a few quarters and make the mad dash across the forbidden street to 7-11, now that we were no longer welcome at Murray's.

What happened next was really Lori's fault. She would not shut up. She kept going on about how she deserves to be Scott's girlfriend, that she was the prettiest and most mature girl in the school, that her voice was so much better than all of ours and we were just kids, after all (Lori had been left back in first grade, so she was a whole. year. older. than all of us, except Gloria).

We had tired of Lori. We had tired of trudging in slush that had now formed into some sort of icy glue that wouldn't let go of our boots. We were cold and hungry and I could swear I heard my mother calling me. But I walked on.

We got to Scott's house and, according to plan, Lori - her coat unbuttoned to reveal a tight, pale green, fake cashmere sweater - rang the bell. Scott's mother answered the door and we immediately burst into the first chorus of Rudolph. Lori whirled around and threw a look of burning rage our way. She whispered through clenched teeth, "I told you not to sing except for the background. And we are supposed to be singing for Scott. Not his stupid mother." We backed off and Lori turned on her sweet voice and asked Scott's mom to fetch her son. I heard the boys behind me giggling and whispering and when I turned to see what they were up to, Steve just held a finger to his lips. Something was up. Judging from the laughter coming from the back of our group, it was going to be good.

Finally, Scott came to the door. Lori's eyes met his and she gave him a sultry (at least a twelve year old version of sultry) smile. She launched right into her solo effort.

Rudolph the red nosed reindeer...

Each word, each syllable was sung in a throaty whisper and I just know that Lori was imagining herself in a slinky white dress, singing birthday wishes to the president. It was Christmas carol porn.

We were meant to sing the backing vocals; words that had been made up and inserted over the ages to give the song a funny (to a kid, anyhow) edge.

Lori: Had a very shiny nose
Us: Like a lightbulb!
Lori: And if you ever saw it, you would even say it glows
Us: Like Pepsodent!

I had no idea what that meant. Does Pepsodent glow? No matter, the lore of the added verses had been passed down from grade to grade and we had to do our part to carry on the tradition, even if it made no sense to us.

And on the song went, Lori doing her best Marilyn Monroe, the rest of us shouting the added lyrics in unison in a terrible cacophony of missed notes and Lori turning to glare at us every time. Finally, the last verse. Lori puffed her chest out a bit more, making sure that Scott noticed the fine, shapely lumps emerging from her sweater. She had her right hand on her hip and she used her left hand to keep flipping her hair. Her hips swayed as she sang. The combination of the tits, the hair, the hips and the swaying were, I suppose, supposed to be sexy in a twelve year old way, but made her look like more like a spazz who had to pee really bad.

Rudolph the red nose reindeer, you'll. Go. Down. In. Hist-or-y. All breathy and teasing. That's where we were supposed to chime in with LIKE COLUMBUS! and get a nice round of applause. But during the "reindeer games" verse, the instructions came from the back to the front. No one was supposed to say the Columbus line. Everyone just stay silent. I shrugged and went along with the game.

Lori: Rudolph the red nose reindeer, you'll. Go. Down. In. Hist-or-y.....

Silence, save for a few stifled giggles from the rear of the chorus. Lori pulled the flaps of her jacket tight, turned on her heels and went running down the steps. Scott looked rather amused, while his mother looked a bit horrified. The rest of us just stood there, feeling rather awkward. As Lori maneuvered her way around us trying to high tail it out of Scott's yard, she tripped over a cord that was haphazardly strung around a hedge at the end of Scott's walk. She fell to the ground, pulling some of the lights from the bush down with her. And there she lay until Gloria helped her to feet, face down in the snow and silhouetted by a dozen or so big, colored lights.

I knew right then that this was the end of many things - our caroling for candy scheme; our otherwise tight knit group of misfits; Lori's plans for to be queen to Scott's playground king. It also meant the end of the lumps under Lori's sweater, as everyone within five miles of our school would find out in no less than 24 hours that Lori's tits were no more than artistically folded socks.

We didn't see Lori for many days after that, as she chose to sequester herself in her bedroom, with only visits from a revenge-plotting Gloria to cheer her up. I heard from Lori's brother - who was part of the "Lori stuffs" chorus, that his sister burst into tears when their grandmother gave her socks for Christmas.

Perhaps now you can see why I hold dear the tradition of oversized, colored lights. Nostalgia for the good old days, when we brought a queen-sized ego down to jester size. Every time I see a house all lit up with the colors of 60's suburbia Christmas, I can't help but think of Lori, laying on the ground like a forlorn toy from Misfit Island.

Good times, good times.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Christmas Tales From My Less Than Idyllic Youth:

» The great Christmas Light controversy - in praise of white from Darleen's Place
Ok, maybe not so "great" but interesting as the strings-o-white vs multi-color argument starts making the rounds of the blogshere. Lileks kind of straddles the divide doing red/green, while Michele contends it just isn't Christmas if it's not multi-co... [Read More]

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» A Winter Story Of Youth from Diggers Realm
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Colored lights OUTSIDE, white lights INSIDE. Period. The white lights show-off my kids home-made decorations better. No Victorian rose scheme here.

Great story.

Great story - sort of a a fifth-grade version of "Election".
I can't stand those oh-so-tasteful white lights either...

I would say "great story", but I'll say "excellent story" instead, so I can be "different".

Loved it Michele!

Ok, I'm here to stand up for the white lights!

And I've been doing white icicle lights since 1984 ... when they didn't even make icicle style lights.


That was beatiful, except that...

Isn't Pleasantville only in black and white? So, how could you have remembered colored lights?

Aha, Michele! I knew you were just making this stuff up!

Colored lights...everywhere. And white ones, y'know, the ones you bought during the yuppified eighties--to chase that mysterious 'class' thing that everyone was trying to pin on Christmas.

Put white lights up too. Why not?

Hell, we've got red icicle lights....and our light-up Hogfathers.

And the light scheme on the big lights always seems to be red blue green orange white yellow....and, for some reason the red and orange always seem to overpower everything else....why is that?

Don't make the mistake of putting up a string of lights which has only red bulbs, with a manger display on the lawn with a little baby skeleton in the cradle.

Not that you would, of course, it's just a good general rule to keep in mind.

Just a little Slice O' Life there

Kinda like bookends with Russell Crowe at the beginning of L.A. Confidential

Now, that's my kind of Christmas story, full of angst and humiliation. Whooo-hoooo!! Every bad thing that happens at Christmas will scar you for life! Yaaaaaaaaaye!!

JFH - only the middle section of Pleasantville is in b&w.
I love that movie...

In my house, we have the nice tree, with white lights, and the crap tree, with colored lights.

I am not allowed to touch the nice tree. My guitar light strings and jalapeno lights are crap, and they go on the crap tree. With the ornaments made of popsicle sticks and yarn with photos of my girls on them.

Every couple of days or so I will take one of my Fender guitar ornaments and sneak it onto the nice tree. It'll get found, and moved back, and we'll do it all over again. It has become our favorite Christmas game.

The crap tree is Christmas to me. I love it and I always will.

Oh I'm not allowed to have THAT nativity, Neuroto. Not after the preacher tried to exorcize our house a few years ago on Halloween.

I had it all worked out....Satan, Whore of Babylon, Little Antichrist wrapped in swaddling.....even a Hellish Host--and you wouldn't believe what you can do with plastic light up animals. But Nooooo....they'll burn us at the stake, my wife says.

But they didn't when we had the Satanic Revival tent---and they still haven't quite figured out what's going on with the Grim Reapers in Father Christmas robes....

I'm gonna make the damned thing anyway....even if I can't put it up, maybe I can find someone who can.

I agree 100% with the colored lights. Even my icile lights are bright and fun christmas colors. White lights should be banned because when you drive around looking at all the houses, they are so boring you get sleepy and wreck your car into some poor carolers. Not a very good way to start the holidays.