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Ode to the humble Christmas light
On the virtue of brightening the darkest spell of the year
A quest taken too far can become an obsession, and there are certainly those who take their Christmas light displays a few steps beyond healthy boundaries. Like Clark Griswold, they find no limit unworthy of exceedance. Yet for most, a few modest strings of lights are enough to demonstrate holiday cheer. And of the many outward ways a household can express itself, the humble Christmas light may be one of the finest.
■ How anyone decorates the interior of their home -- whether to change themed hand towels by the month or to leave everything museum-like 365 days a year -- is almost entirely a matter for the household itself. It doesn't show, except to visitors. But putting up Christmas lights is a particularly social activity: For the most part, the lights are experienced by others, rather than by the occupants themselves.
■ The history of illumination in American cities goes all the way back to the pre-Revolutionary Era. Benjamin Franklin makes reference to it in his autobiography, pointing to a development in the mid-1750s: "It was by a private person, the late Mr. John Clifton, his giving a sample of the utility of lamps, by placing one at his door, that the people were first impress'd with the idea of enlighting all the city. The honour of this public benefit has also been ascrib'd to me, but it belongs truly to that gentleman."
■ Some light displays draw on an explicitly religious theme, but most are merely bright and colorful at what is literally the darkest time of the year (at least in the Northern Hemisphere, where the Winter Solstice happens on December 21st or 22nd). Thus, while some people really are out to bring attention to themselves or win contests, displaying lights at Christmastime is mainly an act of goodwill toward others.
■ Few people actually blind their neighbors and strain the local power grid. Most are satisfied with putting out a few watts and calling it a day. But it is that modest display -- the one that says "Light for all, even if we don't know each other" -- that ought to be celebrated, for it means we're still able, selflessly, to wish others well.