The drive home from western New York is a long but enjoyable one, winding through the mountain passes of Pennsylvania and Maryland before dumping you into the insanity of the Capital Beltway.
My wife Melinda and I had just spent Thanksgiving with her family, enjoying the serenity of the small town where she grew up, the picturesque lake-effect snow showers, and the sweet sounds of her parents bickering in the kitchen.
We arrived at our neighborhood in seven hours flat, and a comfort that only home can provide washed over me. But as our house came into view, that warmth in my stomach was replaced with a sinking.
“Son of a bitch,” I said.
“What?” Melinda asked.
“The neighbors already have their goddamn lights up.”
Things I’d never previously cared about—raking leaves, edging sidewalks, whatever the hell aerating is—suddenly became important to me. Earlier in the summer, I watched my neighbor painstakingly pull clumps of crabgrass from his lawn, and instead of shaking my head at the wasted effort, I was wracked with guilt for not following suit.
Adding to that pressure is the 17-page HOA agreement I was required to sign, which included regulations on where I can put my trashcans, the type of shutters I can install, and where I can park my car. I skimmed most of it so I’m not sure, but I assume my failure to comply with these edicts is punishable by a month in the stockades next to the community jungle gym.
“Who do they think they are?” I hissed at Melinda as we unpacked the car. “I mean, it’s not even December yet.”
Having already stared at artificial trees and tinsel lining the aisles of Target since September, I wasn’t willing to give into the pressure of seasonal creep.
But as the days wore on and more neighbors began draping their homes with decorations, my resolve weakened. It was a suburban arms race, and the last thing I wanted was to be the only one on the block without a holiday display. Even the HOA poured on the pressure, announcing a neighborhood decoration contest. The judging would begin December 12.
So that Saturday, I hauled out my orange ladder and began the ancient tradition of festooning the house with colored bulbs.
Here’s a question: why is it that no matter how much painstaking effort I put into winding and coiling the lights at the end of every year, they come out of their bin in one giant ball? And why in the hell are half of them broken?
It was a problem that plagued my father 30 years ago, when I watched him wrestle the tangle of bulbs like it was a nest of pit snakes. No doubt it would be a war waged by dads for generations to come. This is the real War on Christmas.
What I didn’t anticipate was that since this was the first winter at our new house, I had no plan for where I’d be hanging these strings of Christmas cheer.
This was quite an issue, because one of my largest deficiencies as a human is the fact that I have zero spatial reasoning. It’s something that infuriates Melinda to no end. She can look at a blank wall and eyeball precisely where a picture should hang, whereas it takes me a tape measure, two beers, and a half-dozen errant nail holes.
Last year I even drew up a schematic and numbered each light set as I put them away to cut down on next year’s learning curve.
With a new canvas to decorate, all that work was all for naught, a fact I lamented as I tossed the obsolete blueprint into the trash.
For several hours, I wrangled the lights into a respectable pattern, and when I was finished, I stepped onto the sidewalk and admired my handiwork.
I accent the bushes with the smaller LED lights and string the gutters with the fat, energy-sucking strings that I inherited from my grandfather.
I favor the colored bulbs because there’s something utilitarian about them. White bulbs just feel too flashy.
I wasn’t under any illusion our house would be in the running for the HOA competition, a fact confirmed when Melinda and I took the kids for our annual Christmas Eve drive to look at the neighborhood lights. It’s a wonderful tradition where we get to judge the shit out of our neighbors under the guise of holiday cheer.
“That’s so ugly,” Melinda said of a house draped with lights that looked like they’d been strung by squirrels with ADD. “They’re not even symmetrical.”
Standing firm in the belief that more isn’t necessarily better, I tend to criticize the homes of people who try too hard. “Completely ridiculous,” I said, slowing in front of a yard that could’ve doubled as a runway at Dulles. “Think of what their electric bill must be!”
Nine-year-old Josephine sneered at a house with one of those disco ball spotlights that projects onto the siding. “That’s just lazy,” she said.
At one intersection, we came across a house with a sign planted in the front yard that proclaimed it was this year’s HOA contest winner.
“There are WAY better houses than this one,” I said. “There’s clearly some HOA collusion at play here.”
“Maybe those houses won in previous years and they’re trying to spread the winners around,” Melinda suggested.
“There’s a great lesson,” I said, turning to the kids in the backseat. “Be the fourth or fifth best, guys, and eventually all the good people will feel sorry for you and let it be your turn to win.”
Christmas morning came and went, and I’d just sat on the couch with a cup of coffee to bask in the glow of my new stuff when something caught my eye out the front window.
So it began, the light war in reverse. Which would be the last house standing?
If I was in my old neighborhood, it would’ve been the lady across the street, who decided fuck your peer pressure and kept her lights up all year round. When I once asked her why she kept her lights up, she told me they made her happy.
But happiness only carries you so far when you’re entrenched in suburban competition, so I clutched my coffee tighter, shot daggers at my neighbor, and waited for the inevitable day I’d be forced to take down my lights.