I really love Christmas lights, and here in Los Angeles - a three hour expanse of homes - there are a lot of them. For one month, LA’s Spanish style, craftsmen, and little mid century bungalows are adorned with the tchotchke glory of mid century kitsch. Fake reindeer hooves touch down on mowed lawns, and mechanical Santas wave at passerbys with a manufactured ease.
Here in ‘Tinseltown’, this edifice feels delightfully on brand. Native Angelenos like me are comforted by setting our sights on snowmen we’ve never seen, on blue-tinged icicles that glisten with the elegance of far-off (frozen) places that exude a coldness and a boldness that we easy-going Californians think we lack.
When I first see Christmas lights, I also yearn to hang those electric markers of my #Christmasfeels out for all the world to see. In my mind’s eye, separate sets of arms would magically appear, octopus-like, to wrap themselves around a house I don’t have and check light bulbs and test electric switches and run wires and string and hang and arrange things on bushes as my visual contribution to the city. While it’s at it, I imagine that this cephalopod might also make complete all the markings of middle class motherhood, and balance a somewhat dizzying roulette of present purchases, preschool party snacks, work to-dos, cookie baking, and event planning on the tip of one of its many tentacles.
I dream of this cephalopod (perhaps in part?) because I am a single parent, and only have two arms. I am both Santa and Mrs. Claus, which can be a lot. (By the way, she is #goals. Homegirl looks so rested, like she’s just hanging out making hot cocoa.) The innermost part of me sometimes feels like a sleepy squid eye, with vaguely faded bronze eye shadow and poorly applied mascara - all knowing, rarely opening, squivering away upon sight. The early winter nights exacerbate this feeling; after I put my son to bed, hibernation kicks in. I don’t want to do anything, much less post about anything after the work day’s over. Christmas has always been a social holiday - perhaps somewhat peppered with the promotion of contemplation and solitude - but now it’s a #social holiday.
While external markers are celebratory and important, they are not more important than what we notice, alone. Without moments of quiet, without the internal, how do we learn to separate the reality from the artifice?
How do we see what we really need to see?
Beneath the edifice, one can see that the actual reality here in LA is that we have Jesus en pesebre. This pesebre (manger) metaphor is somewhat painfully poignant, as we have the worst home to income ratio and the second largest homeless population in the country. Here, the nativity story of people sleeping under palm trees beneath cold desert skies is our actual brand. Despite well concerted efforts to reduce homelessness and increase affordable housing stock, LA remains full of many young families for whom there is no room at the inn, figuratively speaking.
At large, the actual city itself - immigrant Los Angeles, largely unfilmed by Hollywood - doesn’t really celebrate a ‘white Christmas’ in any sense of the word. Many Christmas carols are sung in Spanish, and rompope is often served instead of eggnog. Tamales are the region’s true Christmas treats.
The Christmas lights I was able to hang this year line my living room. They are draped happily around my Christmas tree and windowsills, and exude a beautiful, glowing warmth. These small, sparkling wonders recall the short days and long shadows of the earlier months of the fall, when we were thrilled not by the (overpriced) fancy pumpkins we bought at a patch but by ‘Peter Pumpkin’, a small electric jack-o’-lantern toy that my father gave my son Caetano as a Halloween present. More than costumes or candy or any other celebration, Peter Pumpkin was the most magical part of our fall. Every night before Caetano would go to bed, we’d switch off the bedroom lights and project Peter Pumpkin’s pale yellow smile on the ceiling. Time would stop as Caetano squealed in joyous disbelief, “Oh Peter Pumpkin, how did you get on the ceiling?!”
Holiday magic sells us on the idea of temporary transformations, and conquerable evils. These rituals scare just enough to excite; they hint at an unknowing with a happy ending. In the cartoons we watch, the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit only to relay the comforting message that everything is fixable - that time itself is flexible, and the outcome guaranteed. Should shadows appear, they’ll fade with the morning sun.
This is magic, microdosed - training wheels for the real thing. In actuality, nothing is guaranteed. Life is long, and fates are unknown. Love does transform, for better or for worse.
A simple plug-in of living room Christmas lights backlight the larger plot points of our life. Pop up style, I can see what we’ve sprouted, here from the little wooden nut of our living room. I see the small perfections of three (my son’s age, as he shows people with his teeny, tiny fingers). The seeming enormity of the softball field was crossed. Letters were learned, and schoolyard quarrels resolved. He learned to put his own shoes on (most of the time). Our daily routine of preschool and teaching and proposal writing and driving and grocery shopping and etc and etc and etc actually spun quite well. Very well.
The living room Christmas lights have become somewhat of our north star. Under them, I know we’ve arrived. We’re home. On the couch, Caetano snuggles up next to me and says, “Mom, I love you. And I like you.” This is magic, on our own terms. On our timetable.
During this season, we’re so concerned about what we gift our children, about what we gift to each other. About what we deliver, about what we show. But mothers gift whole worlds - we gift life itself. The real magic of this month - of Christmas lights and Christmas punch and Christmas tinsel and even old Kris Kringle - is that for one brief instance, hopes rise. Heat rises. For one moment, we focus on a birth, en pesebre, and take the rest as taken care of. We commemorate what is, in auld lang syne.
And just like that, everything is illuminated.