Those Christmas lights could knock you off the roof or save your life

Those Christmas lights could knock you off the roof or save your life

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Country people didn't have electricity when I was little, so we used to go to town to see the Christmas lights. In those days, they had strings of colored bulbs stretched across the street, sort of like a ceiling of lights. It doesn't sound like much, but city employees worked all week putting them up. They used to have to stand on tall stepladders in the middle of the street to change bulbs. When the lights finally came on, it was spectacular.

Now they have these stylish little Victorian curlicues stuck on top of the streetlights. I guess the new decorations cost a bunch of money, and I know the city crews were glad to be able to get off the ladders in the middle of the street during the worst of the Christmas rush. But it just isn't the same.

We always had a parade for the children with the band marching under the lights and playing "Jingle Bells." Santa Claus (actually it was the local taxi driver) came behind in a little buggy pulled by a worthless bunch of Shetland ponies with phony reindeer horns hanging under their necks. Many a child was horrified at the sight of Santa snatching one of those reindeer back into line with a vicious jerk on the reins and a word or two. Some others, now grown, tell me they were shocked to see not the stump of a pipe in Santa's mouth but a great big Cuban cigar.

Every year, some folks went overboard when it came to decorating their homes. I remember in particular one schoolteacher, wearing a Santa costume, and his wife who always put on a spectacular display. Getting it ready was such a big job that it always pushed them to the last minute. They were never ready to turn the lights on until just before Santa was due to arrive. Cars full of people with sleepy children lined their street, waiting to see Rudolph and all the others up there on the roof. Recent arrivals in town who didn't know any better honked at the traffic jam. Neighbors pulled their blinds so nobody could see what kind of nonsense they were watching on TV. Meanwhile, the harried exhibitors clambered through shrubbery and crawled over the roof, crunching light bulbs under their knees and getting tangled up in extension cords. Somehow it usually came together, at least for a little while.

One time, though, it didn't. When the frantic couple finally got the extravaganza plugged in that night, the reindeer and Santa and his sleigh full of toys didn't light up. They unplugged everything, and the husband climbed back on the roof to wiggle the wires. Then he said, "Try it again, Baby," and the electricity nailed him at the same time it lit Rudolph's nose. The whole mess toppled from the roof in a blaze of glory that set the pine needles in the yard on fire.

One youngster I knew never got over the sight. What bothered her was not so much the destruction of the toys, the sleigh and the eight tiny reindeer (plus Rudolph) but the fact that there were two Santa Clauses tumbling off the roof. Fortunately, some of the people waiting in their cars were able to beat out the pine-needle fire or the whole house might have burned up.

When I told my uncle Hawkins that story, he said the prettiest Christmas lights he ever saw were on just one tree. He was in the Army Air Corps during World War II. On Christmas Eve in 1943, he and five other airmen got on a B-26 flying from Fort Knox, Kentucky, to Tampa, Florida. Uncle Hawk, as he was called, planned to get off in Jacksonville for a last visit home before shipping out to Europe. When the plane got to Jacksonville, it was socked in so badly the crew couldn't see the ground or the tower lights. They decided to fly inland, hoping conditions were better at training fields near Starke or at Cross City.

When they passed where Starke was supposed to be, the fog was still so thick they couldn't see any fields near there either. They had no choice but to continue on to Cross City. The plane didn't have much fuel, and the men began to worry. When they flew over Cross City, there were no lights because of the blackout and no gaps in the fog. They were trying to figure out if they had enough fuel to make it to the Gulf of Mexico to ditch the precious plane when, suddenly, they spotted what looked like one light shining through the fog. They went back and passed low over it. Then they saw car lights.

The aviators circled, keeping those lights in view, until finally they realized the cars had all lined up in two rows, illuminating a lane in between. They landed the bomber in soup so thick they touched down without even seeing what their wheels were landing on. It turned out to be a training field at Cross City. The first light they had seen was actually a tree that had been decorated for the base Christmas party. Uncle Hawk said that after the relieved airmen got out of the plane, they went to the party and had a real good time.

Recently I heard there's a little town not far from here where they don't use Victorian curlicues. I think I'll drive my little granddaughter over there one of these nights and take her for a walk under the old-fashioned strings of colored bulbs stretched across the street. I bet she'll think it's nice. And maybe, on the way home, I'll tell her the story about Uncle Hawk and the best Christmas-tree lights he ever saw.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus