Take a nighttime stroll through any American neighborhood during this Christmas season, and the chances are you'll see displays of hundreds, if not thousands, of brilliant electric lights and other holiday decorations homeowners have installed on and in front of their houses. Let's take a walk through a part of my neighborhood where the whole block literally glows in the dark.
"We're on the lawn, looking upwards at your roof," I said smiling at my neighbor. "There's something in writing on your roof. What does it say?" Karen Auth, a neighbor and a deputy sheriff in the city of Alexandria, Virginia, is legendary in these parts for the Christmas decorations she displays from her front lawn to the top of her roof.
"That says, 'Season's Greetings,'" she replied. "Unfortunately the roof doesn't have enough of a pitch to read it. So we need to bring that down to put it up on the lawn."
"Yeah," I chuckled. "But a low-flying helicopter might be able to pick that up."
"Definitely, ha, ha."
On her roof is a plastic statue of Santa Claus, next to her chimney. "That's him getting ready to go down the chimney to drop off all the presents," she smiled.
Do you believe in Santa Claus?" I asked.
"Of course, don't you?"
Ms. Auth definitely believes in a good show of electric lights and inflatable Christmas characters. A penguin blow up, a snowman, a train set, reindeer, Santa, Christmas presents. Everything lights up, Christmas lights on the walkway, and lights on the roof.
"I love Christmas," she says. "I love the lights. My daughter and I enjoy doing it together." It takes Karen and her 18-year old daughter about four days to do the outdoor decorating.
Karen says cars driving by her house almost always slow down and sometimes stop. "They stop and thank me, tell me it looks great. Luckily, no car accidents, though," she says. "The other night, it was quarter to midnight, and we had people out here taking pictures. We saw all the flashes going off - three or four people taking pictures."
Inevitably, the extravagant displays of Christmas lights generate competition among neighbors. Some communities actually hold contests each year for the holiday light show. Longtime resident Gary Penn, who lives two houses down from the Auths and puts a lot of effort into his own outdoor display, insists he doesn't mind being outdone by his neighbor. "No," he says, " The more beautiful out here, the better it is, you know?"
There is a cost to this annual obsession with Christmas lights, besides the sizeable jump in December electric bills. More than five thousand Americans are reportedly injured every year in falls and other accidents related to stringing up their Christmas lights. In fact, homeowner Gary Penn implies he wouldn't do the decorating at all if it weren't for his wife. As Mr. Penn tells it, when it comes to decorating the lawn with lights, there's no pleasing Mrs. Penn. "You [I did] probably got about eight hours on the outside, then she comes in and corrects it, " he says. "Probably about two hours behind me. [she'll say,] 'Not enough lights on. The lights are too much over here. Why isn't that straight?'"
A couple of houses down, Jim Miller seems to be in a similar predicament. He says he strings lights on the roof because his wife wants him to. "I mean, I'm afraid of heights," he says. " So I don't like putting lights up."
Then, there's Judy Davis, a professional photographer. Did she secretly envy Karen Auth's Christmas display? "Maybe…." she says. " I like simple white lights." I pointed to Karen Auth's house, with its bright lights and inflatable Santa.
"What do you think of that one there?"
"Gawdy," she whispered.…[what?] " Gawdy!" she laughed.
Forty-one-year old Terry Eisner, who lives two blocks down, would disagree. He also has an inflatable Santa on his front lawn -- as well as blinking stars, reindeer, and garlands of white lights wrapped around his bushes "If we could get the neighborhood and every house to do it [outdoor decorations], and have a kilometer-long Christmas display, I would love it!" he said. "I'd be the happiest guy in town!"
The lights from all these homes seem to reflect a glow from within --- a holiday spirit and a hopefulness that all the bad news in the world can't dim. The Christmas decor lights up homes for miles, bringing holiday cheer and nighttime smiles.