We will watch every TV special cable can throw at us and some require multiple viewings. We convert my basement tool shop into the “North Pole,” our personal slice of Santa’s Workshop, where me and my wife wrap our presents under the warm glow of old-school Christmas lights (no LEDs for this Kringle clan). The stereo in our North Pole is set to the local holiday music channel and then the knob is ripped off. Our den becomes a miniature Christmas village, complete with a golf course club house and totaling 22 little structures in all. We have a bushel basket full of Santa hats, which are de rigueur for my daughter during her waking hours. A replica of the Polar Express train chugs its way around the base of our Christmas tree. Lights, nativity scenes, garland, wreaths, jingle bells, Santa statues, snow men of all sizes and forms, a vintage 1960s light up Santa to guard the back door, the Elf on the Shelf, a girlfriend for the Elf on the Shelf named Crystal (whose origin I have no clue about), a tree festooned to the point of oppression, and other holiday accoutrements cover practically every square inch of our home from that fourth Friday in November until they finally quit playing college football in January. In all, our Christmas juggernaut takes a dozen, massive Rubbermaid containers to store when we aren’t going Christmas-crazy. As Clark Griswold put it in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, we’re the “jolliest bunch of a–holes this side of the nuthouse.”
There’s that iconic scene in Christmas Vacation when Clark Griswold begins pulling out his knotted stock of Christmas lights, with a grand plan in mind: cover the entire house. Much to his son Rusty’s dismay, Clark is hell-bent on his vision coming to life, which is just another manifestation of his manic desire to provide his family with the best Christmas ever. Clark stares up at the edifice of his suburban castle and says to himself, “I’ve always wanted to do this.”
Clark and I share a common bond. A bond I feel many people may have. American life is a fast-paced life. The human mind and the human body may not be meant for the pace that 21st century technology and commerce foist upon us. Sure, Clark Griswold is safe, back in good old 1989, without cell phones or iPads. He’s not reachable at all hours of the day via email and text. His accessibility is limited to how far the cord on his home phone stretches. But Christmas then is Christmas now. Today, just as in Clark’s era, Christmas is a time to slow down, to take a look around at what really matters: the people and relationships that transcend the deadlines and bottom lines of our instant-gratification culture. And, if you are lucky enough to have children, Christmas is a chance to provide something special. And, Christmas provides the chance to become a child again. Because of this, there’s a little Clark Griswold in all of us who celebrate Christmas.
Like Clark, I want to provide Christmases that my four kids will remember. They’re young, ranging in age from 2 to 11, so it seems like now is the time to plant those memories, when the magic of things like Santa Claus are still very real to them. So, as the day after Thanksgiving 2015 arrived, I dutifully dragged down container after container of Christmas decorations from the attic and helped spread red and green cheer throughout the house, as we swayed to “Jingle Bell Rock” and stuffed Christmas cookies in our mouths. We’d done it again, our own winter wonderland. The only thing left to do was put up the lights on the outside of the house.
For once, one of my sons, nine-year-old Dylan, volunteered to help me put up the lights. I have exclusively put white lights on our house for as long as I can remember. They provided a classic look and they nicely matched the white brick of the house. But Dylan, a colorful lad indeed, suggested that we do multi-colored lights this year. I did the math and figured we could do our regular amount of lights affordably, so I said, “why not?” I usually wrap the trunk of our dogwood tree, put some on the two arbor vitae that flank our steps, and drape some along the boxwood shrub that sits below our front windows. But, this past year we had our entire house rewired. The old knob and tube, original to our 1929 home, was becoming both unsafe and unmanageable, so we had it all ripped out and replaced. We also had several new outlets and switches run, which gave me an idea. I now had more power at more outlets on the front of the house, which meant I could, in theory, put up more lights than ever. Out in front of the house, I stared up at the windows, craned my neck to look down the lot at the lonely pines on each end of our retaining wall, and then to the columns that hold up our side porch. In my head Clark’s voice whispered, “I’ve always wanted to this.”
Filled with Clark’s Christmas spirit and two Lagunitas IPAs, which would ensure I wouldn’t change my mind, I went to the local, soul-sucking super store. I loaded my cart with a few extension cords and 36 strands of 100, multi-colored lights. When I got home, I called Dylan, my very own Rusty, out to the car. I opened the trunk and his face glowed. I placed my hand on his shoulder and said, “Son, we’re going full Griswold.”
The next six hours, which went well into the darkness, were spent connecting, wrapping, and zip-tying lights to our usual places and several new ones, including those pines, the side porch, new bushes, and going higher into the limbs of the dogwood than we’d ever been before. Dylan worked like an inspired elf, diligently unpacking lights and preparing them for hanging. He’s got a future as a civil engineer or a rock and roll roadie if he wants it. My two-year-old daughter jumped up and down in the front window, clapping and squealing as we kept putting up more lights.
When we were done and Dylan had gone into the warm house, I stood in the front yard and gazed upon the wide wonder of what had appeared. Did we match Clark Griswold’s zeal, causing the local nuclear plant to go into auxiliary mode? No. Did we blind the neighbors with the glow of our house? No. We did, however, manage to incorporate over 300 feet of extension cords and nearly 4000 lights into a beautifully festive display, all for around a hundred bucks. In previous years we used about 1200 lights and the difference was more than noticeable. Next year, we may go even bigger.
Even if some of my more humbugged neighbors don’t get any enjoyment out of our lights, I know our family will, and it certainly set the tone for the holiday season. And most importantly, like Clark Griswold, I made some memories that my children will hopefully hang on to. And I got to spend five solid hours with one of my children, bonding in a one-on-one way that is rare in our large family, but is definitely needed by all of us. No cell phone, no computer, no TV, no papers to grade, no worries. Just me, him, and the Christmas spirit. And if there’s one thing I want to imprint on my kids, to have them carry into their futures, it’s Christmas and the way it can bring a family together, no matter how distracted and conflicted they may be the rest of the year. Maybe one day I’ll stand in front of Dylan’s house at Christmas, he’ll put his arm around my brittle shoulders and say, “Dad, you taught me everything I know about exterior illumination.”