It is typical early-December weather for Pennsylvania: cold, damp days with rather glum-looking skies that make one want to hibernate. But what the days are lacking in light and warmth, the night more than makes up for, as Christmas lights begin to twinkle across my neighborhood starting at twilight, when they are at first a small chorus – a weave of colorful lights in the rhododendron next door to me answering the white, light-sculpture deer and trees at the catty-corner house across the street – which steadily builds until it is a shimmering crescendo of light by the time true night has fallen. Lights are my absolute favorite part of Christmas, and yet I have been guilty for most of the years that I’ve lived here of not putting up any of my own. “I’ll just enjoy other people’s lights,” I said, not wanting to go through the work of stringing them up; that is, until two years ago, when I realized that if everyone adopted my attitude, the thing I love most wouldn’t exist. So, in 2014, I bought a Christmas tree that I put outside my house, in front of our picture window, decorating it with felted birds, sparkly non-glass Christmas bulbs (that wouldn’t break if the wind blew them off), and, of course, lights. It wasn’t a big tree, but its impact on me was. A few of my neighbors stopped me when I was outside to let me know they noticed it and were happy I’d put it up. My sister and nieces quite enjoyed the surprise of it when they came for the Christmas meal, which I always host. And I myself loved plugging in the lights at night and looking at it, too; I would sometimes hop in my car and drive up the road a bit, purely so that I could pull into my driveway and be greeted by it. Though I’d never thought of myself as a holiday Scrooge, a large part of me was obviously on the proverbial side lines of Christmas (as is my tendency in a lot of things), and I was surprised at how this small act made me feel so infinitely more connected to the world at large: to the community of people everywhere, around the globe, who celebrate some sort of winter holiday, bringing man-made light to the long winter nights.
It is one thing (and indeed a great thing) to appreciate a custom and enjoy its beauty purely as a spectator, but it’s a whole other to be a participant. I am writing this as a reminder to myself, because it’s December 4th already, and I need to put up my tree this year and be a part of that hallelujah chorus of light. I know I’ll shiver and curse the frosty ground as I try to right my tree in its stand, untangle the strings of tiny bulbs, and replace the ones that are no longer working. I also know, when evening arrives and I touch plug to socket to bring this tree to life alongside the others that glow in my neighborhood, just how joyful this quiet act of declaration will feel.