THE NIGHT THE Christmas tree lights went out marked a new, somewhat tense chapter in our family life. The living room was not in a total blackout. It was more of a brownout, or to be precise, a red-, green-, blue- and gold-out.
Most of the multi-colored lights on the tree looked deader than baseball in Washington. But one valiant string at the bottom of the tree was still glowing. A partially lit Christmas tree, like a partially dressed Santa, is not a pretty sight.
Immediately I suspected sabotage. This had never happened to me before and I have been stringing lights on Christmas trees since ancient times, that is, when the Colts were in Baltimore, the Orioles were on 33rd Street and National Premium was the local beer.
We all carve out pieces of the landscape of life, and the Christmas lights are my turf. I am the "light guy," and as such believe Christmas lights should shine like beacons in the December night, inspiring awe, lifting hearts and -- this is important -- not burning down the house.
Last weekend I began working through my list of light-guy responsibilities. I tested the lights, looked for any cracks in the protective covering of the wires and, when I put the lights on the tree, avoided linking more than three sets of lights. This three-string limit is what safety experts recommend. My bulbs are the traditional, C-7 size and I worry about overloading a circuit or blowing a fuse by linking too many of these larger lights into one gigantic string. So I arranged to give each group of three conjoined strings a direct connection to an electrical outlet.
I also checked the light arrangement for proper spacing and color coordination, making sure, for instance, that all the green bulbs had not migrated to one spot on the tree.
Then and only then had I signed off on my duties, handing the tall fir over to the ornament hangers.
Let me just say that the ornament hangers (who for reasons of domestic harmony will not be named) do fine work. Yule after Yule, they arrange the glass balls, the icicles, the artful orbs purchased in art museums, the sentimental pieces that emerged from nursery school classrooms and transform the tree into an aesthetically pleasing whole.
But they don't do lights. Or they shouldn't.
My suspicions of Christmas tree sabotage were confirmed when, after some tough questioning, it was revealed that the ornament hangers had, without light guy approval, added an extra string to "brighten up" the tree.
Not only was this action a violation of the Christmas tree code, as well as a breach of the decorating doctrine calling for the clear separation of lights and ornaments, it also put too much electrical load on the line. A fuse in one string blew, taking several connected strings down with it.
Finding which string had the bad fuse was a prickly operation. I had to reach through the tree branches, now heavy with fragile ornaments, and separate the conjoined strings of lights. Then, in a test to determine which strings worked, I connected the male plugs of various strings to an extension cord.
Two ornaments -- a cookie-shaped like Santa and a glass icicle -- lost their lives in this nerve-racking effort. Eventually I found the bad fuse and snapped in a replacement, which was stored in the housing around the male plug of one string of lights. Then I rearranged the tree wiring.
Our Christmas tree now has about as many transmission lines and backup safety systems as a BGE power plant.
Moreover, hurt feelings have been soothed, apologies have been offered and promises of better behavior in future tree decoration efforts have been made.
The other night, as I sat in front of the gorgeous, glowing tree, I felt a strange sense of calm wash over me. After all, Christmas doesn't really feel like Christmas until there has been a tree fight.