OK, so why do people put up all those lights on their houses at Christmas? I ask this because my wife and I spent a pleasant half hour last night driving through one of the more over-the-top local displays, which I’ll show you in a moment. I’ll start you off with something very traditional from that display, your basic go-to Peace On Earth setup:
I’ve been told that the tradition of Christmas lights is actually some kind of Gentile copycat thing rooted in Judaism’s Hanukkah menorah with its eight candles. (Just like the whole Hanukkah gift-giving thing is basically a result of Jewish kids getting jealous of their Christian counterparts.) It’s a really interesting theory with no basis in fact, although in researching this I did stumble across my favorite headline of the day: “Jewish Hanukkah Menorah Now a Favorite Irish Christmas Tradition.” Since Ireland has all of 2500 Jews (about the same as Morocco, as it happens), I have no idea how this came about. But I digress.
Christmas lights are a surprisingly recent tradition, the whole candles-on-the-tree thing having started only in the 17th century. Many people — hopefully those with good fire-suppression systems in their homes — still follow it. My ex-wife is one of them. I can remember many happy Christmases when the kids were growing up, when she would light the candles and everyone would bask in their Christmassy glow while I glowered from the corner with a fire extinguisher in my lap.
The whole thing really took off in 1880, when Thomas Edison introduced the first outdoor electric Christmas display; you can pretty much take it from there. The first electrically-lit White House Christmas tree was turned on by President Grover Cleveland in 1895. In 1925 a consortium of 15 lightbulb companies created the NOMA corporation, which became the dominant Christmas light purveyor for decades before folding in 1968. It was during the 40’s and 50’s when decorative bulbs became available that things really took off and gave rise to today’s elaborate displays of holiday electrical oneupmanship.
One of our best local displays is at a nearby state park on the Chesapeake Bay (I live in the seaside town of Annapolis) , and as you might imagine has a fair number of nautically-themed setups:
So you’ve got your sea monsters, anchors, sailboats, etc. But this being Maryland, you’ll drive among a bunch of electric crabs, oysters, and herons as well. Not to mention flying saucers with friendly-looking three-eyed aliens, who I suppose attended the birth of Jesus. (“We bring gold, frankincense, and the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Demodulator.”) Speaking of whom, even a newly-incarnated divinity needs to eat (at least, I assume so), so our local display includes this one, sponsored by a local pizza chain:
(Yes, the pizza at upper right is animated and flips up and down out of the Elf Baker’s hands.)
I’ll close with the World’s Scariest Electric Teddy Bear (about 15 feet tall), and my personal take on Heironymus Bosch’s driveway at Christmas. You can see the complete set (14 shots) at https://www.flickr.com/photos/isaacman/sets/72157674697937173 . Happy holidays!