By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
It’s that time of year again. I don’t mean time to shop, or even time to bake. It’s time to decorate. I, for one, am not prepared.
In the short lifetime of my young teenager, decorating for Christmas has changed radically. Thirty years ago, Christmas decorations meant a tree, a wreath, maybe a set of outdoor lights strung carefully along the eaves of the house.
These days, Christmas decorations mean an electrical system with special controls, synchronized displays, pop-up snowmen inflated and illuminated. Maybe a soundtrack with speakers set up so drivers-by can partake of one’s favorite holiday tunes. Also, LED lights.
Even though I’m not the techie at my house, the whole thing makes me irritable. Yes, I realize the packaging on LED lights promises me a miraculous savings of $17.32 over a year’s time, if installed according to manufacturer directions and in strings of more than 100 in normal weather conditions and in homes built after 2000, as compared to strings less modern bulbs. Probably. Yes, I know LED gives a “clearer, brighter” light. I’ll even admit, the handy reels on which such lights are now packaged seem a distinct improvement over the tangled blobs of green cord that I’ve wrestled into line over the years.
But that just reminds me of those other years, when the magic of Christmas meant gazing at the lights on our family’s artificial tree with my glasses off. The combination of distance, sleepiness and my astigmatic vision meant the lights strung on the tree melted into an illuminated glow that seemed magical to a 10-year-old. As my parent’s record player spun the sound of the Austrian Boys Choir through the house, I’d drift off to sleep, certain that the world was beautiful.
I was untroubled that my parents had been unable to find replacement bulbs for the ancient strings of lights they’d traditionally wound around the two large front windows of the parsonage. I had experienced a moment of sadness when the plastic, star-shaped string of tree lights finally gave out; the chunks of plastic that encased the small, colored bulbs looked like crystal to me, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would discontinue such a pretty product. I was too young to conceive of intentional obsolescence.
Years later, it’s a given that manufacturers design things to wear out so that consumers will buy newer versions of what we’ve come to rely upon. As we are alternately encouraged and bullied into replacing our old stuff with new stuff, consumers have slowly consented to constantly purchasing a steady stream of new holiday supplies. The very notion of pulling out the box of treasured ornaments, crafted and collected over the years, has given way to the notion of theme trees.
I shouldn’t grouse about the situation. Some of the turnover occurs naturally, via life’s vagaries. A box of holiday ornaments I’d collected since childhood was accidentally left behind in a Chicago sublet studio decades ago; I will never again see the Christmas soldier I made from a wooden clothespin when I was a twiggy member of the Minneola Brownies troop, or the Make and Bake bell, a metal frame filled with tiny grains of meltable plastic and then roasted at 350 degrees until it resembled stained glass. Perhaps these losses are not so grievous after all — or at least, they were grievous, and my own fault.
Even so, something in me rebels against the notion of decorating a tree from scratch, or designing an outdoor display in order to showcase this year’s newest light colors.
It may be that I’m still smarting from the loss of appliances in my kitchen. Just last month, our two-month-old microwave inexplicably stopped working, the bread machine ground to a halt, unable to knead another loaf, and the radio-CD player, perched atop the refrigerator, crashed to the floor and was rendered rattly and useless. When I suggested smoking the extra turkey we had stashed in the freezer, my husband casually mentioned that he’d disposed of the 15-year-old smoker: its heating element had bent and cracked somehow, leaving a frightening metallic taste on every piece of meat placed in its charred chamber.
“Things don’t last anymore, do they?” I remarked grimly. I waved a wooden spoon in the air for emphasis. “I think I want to stick with the low-tech options from now on.”
As it is unrealistic to illuminate our outdoor nativity triptych with candles or oil lamps, I realize I may have to give in to progress. Last year, as my husband set up the homemade outdoor display, pounding stakes into the lawn with his sledgehammer, I untangled and tested the many strings of outdoor lights we’d used to make the image of Baby Jesus sparkle over the years. The blue lights had faded to a greenish glow, with several sections permanently dark. One multicolored string worked — sort of, if you ignored the darkened first third of the bulbs. Another, higher-tech set worked even if a bulb here and there was burned out. The only problem was, about half the bulbs here and there — or maybe all the “heres — had given way.
I realized a shopping trip for electric Christmas lights was in my future within 12 months’ time. Now the deadline has arrived, and I’ll have to give way to progress if I don’t want to remain in the dark for the last few weeks of this year.
LED or traditional? I’m not sure I care, as long as replacement bulbs are available. I plan to stock up. By the time these miracle bulbs burn out, I have the feeling individual bulbs may no longer be sold in stores. That’s progress for you.
It’s a good thing, I say, that nobody in commerce is in charge of the stars.