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Christmas lights in the image of God
When I was a kid I used to watch Home Improvement with my sister. It was on right after The Simpsons (which Mom didn’t like) and right before Seinfeld in my recollection (which Mom didn’t understand, but found endearing). Of course, I could just be making the whole thing up. Sometimes I really think that I recall the order of events, or TV shows as it were, as they occurred when I was growing up, but I’m totally wrong. Just like Reagan when he was caught with his pants down during the Iran-Contra affair, my heart and my best intentions sometimes tell me that I’m right, but the facts and the evidence often show otherwise. It’s hard to trust even yourself sometimes.
I guess that’s why I watched Home Improvement. The Tool Man, played by Tim Allen, was something of a role model for me. The caricature of the American suburban man that he so well portrayed was somehow important to me. I guess during the age where watching Rugrats still seems appropriate, the Tool Man is could actually maintain such a posture (and let’s not forget Jonathan Taylor Thomas circa the era when Seventeen magazine meant something).
The Tool Man’s obsession with power and power tools was amusing. The wise sage Wilson who lived next door always helping him understand the plights of sprawl and marriage was inspiring. But more than anything I recalled Home Improvement this early winter because during the Christmas episodes. You see, as a student of Seinfeld, I am not used to holiday-themed episodes, since the closest one that Seinfeld loyalists got was the one where George’s dad makes the alternative and now well-celebrated holiday Festivus. Of course, the one where George gets John Voight the dentist’s car also had some connection to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. All of this to say, Seinfeld didn’t get its popularity from temporally relevant programming.
But Home Improvement did do that, and during the Christmas shows, Tim Taylor engaged in a competitive neighborhood Christmas decorating where his blow up Santa and roof-top nativity scene needed to beat the Jones’ one so to speak (the actual character is “Doc Johnson”). And to me, that whole thing was a flagrant violation of Christmas and Christmas decorations. Of course, any social critic can easily deconstruct the American consumerism that’s so obvious in the U.S.’s interpretation of the holiday—connecting it to capitalism is so elementary. The crux of capitalism is competition and so there you have it, what else could Christmas lights be about?
Allow me to be Wilson to the proverbial Tim Taylor for a moment. I take personal retreats at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston. It's a small complex and I always end up wandering and wondering through the local development. Walking through those streets I noticed the different houses—the suburbs always do this kind of thing to me, much like the American media conglomerates have a bias toward small town American, so do I. And noticing the little family lives, and guaranteed privilege and attachment issues that come with such wealth (or lack there of—I did a real estate search while I was there, and within just a mile of each other are $200,000 and $2,000,000 homes). But somewhere in that dysfunction is the motivation that someone has to put up the Christmas lights, and the decorations in general. Something is going on there. And I think it has to do with love. Something sacred. Something familial.
And it was the center of love of my family that did all of the Christmas decorations. We’d cut down the tree together, but Mom would read the interior design magazines to fix up our tree. She’d climb on the ladder to hang the lights on our rooftop. She hang up all of the decorations and would keep them up during the Yuletide. Too kind to compare herself to others and too gentle to care if someone else was comparing themselves to her, Mom did it for love. The same reason she masterfully prepared dinner, or did our landscaping, or even laid tile in our basement. She did it for us. She held us together. It seemed like the Christmas decorations might have, but it was her. A sacrificial outpouring of her love in a loveless family. Mom was the expert in love and it was so clear during November and December; the rest of struggled with our expressions of love. Mom's a lover and she is our Mother Mary. Maybe it’s an incorrect assumption, but I think there are those lovers in other families.
Call me an idealist, but when you go through the trouble of getting the tree, hanging the ornaments, putting up the lights, displaying the Christmas cards—you are engaging in something that’s deeper than simply beating the Jones’. It’s about love, and it’s about sharing it. You could say it’s all about a shared understanding of faith or even civil religion, but I prefer to think on something else every now and then.
I don’t always notice the families that populate North Jersey when we take trips up there to visit the in-laws. But during Christmas, it’s hard not to. I live in North Philly, so on our block, we don’t have all of the Christmas decorations up like they might in the suburbs. (People have other concerns.) So the New York suburbs really doll it up. And I don’t really notice the excess or consumerism, as much as the humanity. Every home, with its two-car garage and its nice family of four or whatever it is, has a story, has a life, has significance. Almost exactly the same as my family does. We spent all week hanging out with each other, and I’m sure there was a similar story at each of the other Christmas-lit homes.
Maybe I just get caught up in the Spirit. But to me the Christmas lights just point out the fact that we all are connected as beings that have been given an instinct to love. Call it a survival instinct, but I think it’s something more. I think it points to a creator. Christmas lights in the image of God.