As I questioned whether five strands of light was excessive for one medium tree and a mantle, I was reminded that rituals and traditions shape me, sometimes in ways I don’t think I fully realize.
Probably the area where my perfectionist tendencies are most apparent are in Christmas lights. I like for a tree to be lit just so. Instead of opting for a pre-lit tree, I’m willing each year to string the lights on again, so I can make the tree sparkle. Popular artist renditions of trees seem to favor lights strung in straight lines. Christmas cards show trees with quick diagonal lines of lights swooping across the trees. I’ve seen these trees in people’s houses as well. They start with the lights either at the top or bottom of the tree and seem to just circle round, gradually moving in a diagonal to get tree coverage. But, I like to tuck each light into a home on the tree, getting most of the branches lit.
Plus, and perhaps more importantly, I like to string my lights on myself because it evokes memories of an accidental tradition from when I was young. I don’t think my dad meant for the stringing of the lights to ever approach ritual status, but in my young mind it did. I can remember that my dad used to be so meticulous about his Christmas tree lights. He would keep the little plastic frames that the lights came in, and each year, after he took the lights off the tree, he’d pop each individual light back into the plastic frame, carefully trying to return the entire light set as nearly as he could back to its original factory condition.
However, this light storage method isn’t the most conducive when it comes to putting the lights back onto the tree, so my dad would have to pop all the lights back out of the plastic frames each year before he could hang them. My sister and I would be so eager to get started that we’d be clamoring around him, so I suspect to keep us busy, he’d give us the “important” job of stretching out the lights. He made us very carefully take the lights from him and lay them out in parallel lines, back and forth, back and forth, across the living room floor. As we pranced around in our little vinyl footed one piece sleeper pjs, he’d offer frequent reminders to “make sure the lights aren’t getting tangled” and to “watch out” because I’m sure to him it looked like his two excited little girls were about to tap dance across all the fragile lights.
After we got the lights spread out on the floor, we’d help him keep the tangles out as he fed the long strands of lights onto the tree. Back in those days, we used colored lights that could be solid or be set to various blinking speeds. Consequently, after getting all those lights off the living room floor and onto the tree, the next daunting task was the twisting of knobs on each of the light strings until all those colored strings raced after each other at the same speed. Much chaos would ensue as my dad taunted my mom by setting the lights to their highest, most dizzying speed, joking that the tree looked just perfect. And, my mom would try to convince him that maybe solid lights would be good. And, even though I would be horrified by my childhood tree now and get a good laugh every time it pops up in home movies, those are good memories, some of the most vivid consistent ones that I have of Christmas as a child.
So, even though I call myself a Christmas purist with a strong preference for only white lights that stay solid, I still have some of my dad in me, and I see it at Christmas. While I don’t pop each light back into its plastic frame, I also, for as disorganized as I can be, would never simply toss the lights back into a box to be sorted out the next year. I was so proud of myself when I figured out that extension cord holders are just perfect to use for storing lights.
And, I don’t lay the lights out in zigzagging fashion all across the living room floor, but I do find myself intensely immersed in the stringing of the lights. This year, as I prepared to string the lights, I turned on some Christmas music and then turned off all the lights in the house except for the lights on the tree. I then proceeded to sprinkle the lights throughout the branches, trying to hide the wires the best I could by tucking them under branches or running them back towards the center of the tree. I let the lights guide the way as I was led from branch to branch, shaping and fluffing the tree more as I went and seeing the dark tree light up one branch at a time. There were no adjustments of blinking speeds to make when I was done, but I did feel a connection between past and present, my dad and me, and the passing down of a tradition.