Kathy Foard senses a big month ahead. And she should know. She is Christmas manager at Valley View Farms, the enormous Cockeysville garden center that morphs into the enormous outlet for all things Christmas each fall. Her forecast? It’s going to be a big year for outdoor lighting, having already seen her own neighbors getting busy stringing up lights well before the Thanksgiving turkey was reduced to a memory.
“I believe that with more people not traveling this year, perhaps they’re focusing on home more,” she speculates.
Here’s another theory: In dark times, people are looking for something to brighten their days. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, with its rising body count and homebound lifestyle. Add the shortest days of the year as the winter solstice approaches on Dec. 21 and you have, as the president-elect has observed, a “dark winter” ahead. If a string of icicle lights can raise the spirits, then how about two? Or three? Or 12, plus some C-9′s (those big fat traditional light bulbs), multicolored mini-lights, a herd of plastic reindeer, an inflatable Santa and a bunch of high-output spotlights that will give your home the general aura of an aircraft landing strip?
Take it from someone who has been putting up outdoor holiday lights for several decades now, there is no such thing as excess. Tasteless? Yes. Extravagant? Of course. A visual eyesore that will get the neighbors’ tongues wagging? Absolutely. You might as well throw in that it’s not exactly environmentally friendly to set your electric meter spinning like a dreidel (In the U.S. alone, holiday lights are thought to consume as much as 6% of the December electrical load). But there’s something else a well-crafted outdoor lighting display represents — public art.
That’s right. I’m going there. It’s art. Mock seasonal lighting if you must. It was the running gag in the 1989 movie “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” and as early as the beloved animated 1965 TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” garish lighting represented crass commercialization of the holiday (until it’s time for the humble Christmas tree’s makeover, that is). But there is an emotional heft in solitary electric candles in the window, in stark, leafless tree limbs wrapped in white lights, in conifers lovingly draped with multicolored C-7′s (twinkle optional) like Santa was expected any minute on the front lawn.
We claim no great personal skill at outdoor lighting, but the Jensen family has developed an appreciation for what others accomplish. Even this past weekend, as the manservant (a.k.a. the college student who has taken up residence in the basement during the pandemic) was untangling extension cords and searching a half-dozen tubs of equipment for a working timer, we were contemplating our annual lighting tour. There are few better seasonal treats than driving across the region after night falls, hot chocolate or decaf coffee in hand, to see what others have wrought.
Sure, there’s Baltimore’s Miracle on 34th Street as the neighborhood block in Hampden is known. Always impressive. And there are any number of estate homes in neighborhoods from Guilford to Clarksville that go all out, perhaps with help from professionals. But we find joy in the little things. In the rowhome where someone has carefully outlined the eaves and doors with lights. In the blue-light Hannukah decorations to be found along Park Heights Avenue. Or in a particularly-clever use of red-lighted, metal-runner sleds recently set up outside a house in Lutherville. Ingenuity, thy name is Sylvania or possibly Philips or GE.
We are not complete saps. We like a good inflatable (or “airblown” as those fan-driven puffed up decorations are officially known). Rope lights have their place. So do nets draped on the shrubbery (but the vote was close on that one). We aren’t big fans of LED lights that may be energy efficient but are too bright and off-colored. All-white incandescent light displays are fine but not our favorite. Better to create a tableau that will make the average 5-year-old light up with joy. The stark winter landscape motif doesn’t generally pull that off.
The point is that this is the year to go all out, to make a statement, to rage against the darkness. And the beauty of it is that anyone can come by and scope out your efforts from the safety of their car or truck. Just as you can go on your own lighting tour across the Baltimore region. But here’s a tip: Wait a week or two. Peak lights aren’t in place yet. Heck, the Washington Monument doesn’t get switched on until Thursday. It’s fun. It’s safe. And it’s socially distant, which is so 2020.
Peter Jensen is an editorial writer at The Sun; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.