This kind of beauty doesn’t come easy… nor does it last long. After a long, cold December afternoon trimming the tree and my porch, I had just enjoyed an early episode of Friday Night Lights with Charming by the warmth of my electric fireplace and the twinkling lights of the most perfect Christmas tree ever. I was unaware that the intricate web of lights outside had surged somewhere, and now half the lights were out.
Much to Charming’s dissatisfaction, as anyone can imagine who has braved the fear of heights and uneven ground, carefully shifting the ladder in two feet minor successes to hang them, it was the icicles above the porch that had apparently burnt out while I was avoiding burning a celebratory frozen pizza.
I wasn’t even sure I was going to do it this year. Exciting holiday events extend Charming most December weekends with the exception of Christmas where we’ll be in Syracuse with my family. Charming’s taking me to that military ball again this weekend, and I’m looking forward to attending his parents’ Bible Study Christmas party again a week later.
So why do all this work just for me on these weekdays?
I can’t be the only one. In fact, I know I’m not. Mom still hauls carefully labeled, organized, and bubble wrap laden tubs of decorations down two floors from the attic each year. I learned how to do Christmas from her. Her house still feels more like Christmas than anywhere I’ve been in three decades. My first Christmas, I couldn’t have known the joys yet to come on the carpet, nor the pain the one after my divorce, long after it had been ripped out to reveal preserved hardwoods.
Last year, I was the only child visiting on Christmas day, but Mama Joy preserved all the best traditions. Each year is slightly different, but never too many changes all at once. There’s always the candelabra in the garland behind Dad’s couch in the family room, always the porcelain choir boy trio perched on the piano. Even the mudroom greets you with cinnamon broomsticks.
I dreamed of making a home like that at Christmas in my own place. In college, I decorated inside my apartments. The first Christmas after I had married, I relished decorating our rented house inside and out. I took measurements first, then purchased strings in the appropriate types and lengths for their locations, and finally attached numbers to each end of the each strand and extension cord. The preparation phase complete, stringing the lights was a breeze. I braved the ladder. I couldn’t wait for my husband to come home and see our house all lit up!
Only, similar to that sinking feeling I had this weekend when I realized the icicles were not lit, when he returned he was upset that I had done it without him. It was totally unexpected. When a string of lights went out mid-season, I let him fix it. The next year, I made sure to include him. I thought that my labeling system would carry over and make for a simple reproduction. In all, I think we made three trips to Home Depot that day. We were frustrated. The lights didn’t even matter at the end of the day.
In truth, we got better at decorating together in years to come. He’d purchase trinkets and ornaments that reflected his tastes, and he knew which staples I envisioned to be my versions of Mom’s choir boy trio on the piano in Syracuse. We got better at anticipating which replacement lights to have on hand. We learned which extension cords provided the necessary power.
And we did that with the Christmas lights, year after year, better than we did with our marriage. I didn’t give up on Christmas that last year we were together, though I considered it then, too. Nor was I giving up on my marriage. I was just replacing broken lights all the time. I’d diagnose the problem in the electricity or our relationship and try to identify what would fix it.
When I returned on Christmas Eve after two weeks visiting my parents, all the lights were dead. So was the fridge in the garage filled with rotting meat, days since frozen. I’d tried to coach my husband through this over the phone. Find the red “reset” button on the GFI outlet in the garage. I flipped it. The lights came back on outside. The reindeer started moving.
I’m not sure the power ever came back on in our marriage. I equate these Christmas lights and decorations to making a house a “home”. This time of year, no matter how lifeless or alone we feel, there is comfort in the living current of the reason we celebrate. My Precious Moments nativity is my most prized decoration. The reality in every twinkling light and snowman’s wink is that I’m never alone. A baby would become a man who would sacrifice himself to make that the reality.
When I started over the next year in New York, I bought new Christmas lights. Everything worked. Because it does in the beginning, when it’s new. I tried to diagnose the problem in our marriage in those final months, but there were so many broken pieces I could no longer identify what one thing was going to get the power back on. I I thought that a second chance at happily ever after would be like the new Christmas lights that lit up my snowy front yard that year.
Here’s the thing about new lights: they’re only new the first use. After that, there are no guarantees. You can anticipate problems, diagnose and replace, but eventually, unexpectedly, things will go wrong. There will be power surges and you will have to put time and money into fixing them. I don’t bother labeling the strands anymore because they might not make it to next season.
This weekend with Charming was reminiscent of that last year I spent with my ex-husband. The lights just didn’t want to cooperate. We bought new icicles the next day, Charming hung them, and they were five feet short of connecting with the next strand. He had to rehang the rest of the icicles. Again with the scooting of the ladder. And then there was a portion of those lights out, so I re-hung them this time.
We couldn’t celebrate long, because when I snuck out to the gym during the first half of the Redskins game, the lights were out again. I stopped at three stores on the way home, settling for Dollar General white lights, grabbing extras. I tried to replace the troublemaker before Charming noticed, but he’d heard me pull in and caught me wrapped up in the evidence. I assured him it wasn’t the icicles this time, and we fixed it again. We took a picture of the house: this beautiful, shining wonder amidst a windy, evening chill.
Then the lights went out again. Charming had to get on the road, and I fixed the lights after he left. I made some changes to my layout, rerouted some lines, added power sources, and it worked. This year, the process was discouraging… but it’s nothing compared to the type of troubleshooting on a marriage with a shelf life of four years. The decision to leave was an agonizing one. I had run out of solutions.
This weekend with Charming was only reminiscent in the electrical problems. He was a saint, stringing and restringing lights despite a nagging cold. We would have only these two days in my house this year, faces lit by the most perfect Christmas tree ever (the salesman at Home Depot confirmed it!). He made sure that we made the most of those moments together.
Lights went out, but it mostly happened when we were making memories inside. At times, we fixed the problems. They were valuable learning experiences. But if we spent all our time fixing things, we’d never get to the memory making. At times, we left well enough alone and snuggled up by fake firelight. A relationship is a lot like Christmas lights. You have to fix the problems as they come. If there are too many broken strands, fixing it seems somehow insurmountable, and you never have time to enjoy one another in the peace or the stillness.
I do this with my lights, because when I pull into my driveway after a long, cold day like today, my house is an actual beacon in the night. Its glow lights my way from down the street. This season, when I most long for a home to make memories in like my mother’s, and a family to make them with, this is the time of year where I spend the most time alone with reminders of my faith.
That tree that keeps me company while I grade persuasive essays is adorned for one reason. I am not alone. I am never alone. And my little house can be a home with just me and baby Jesus in the Precious Moments nativity. I have two days of memories shared with Charming to scatter through the days to come, too.
I won’t give up on the lights. They twinkle around me as I write. They warm me in the cold. I’m in the beacon now, looking out at my neighborhood, typing my way to the realization that all the mental and physical effort is worth it because of what it represents to me. The Beacon, the Light of the World, born on Christmas day.
This type of beauty doesn’t come easy. To be a light in the darkness, there are bound to be some broken connections I can’t figure out. I have to trust that the author of Light will work in the darkness.