Friday, December 22, 2006
By CODY LYON
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, New York City evenings begin, and soon arrive at, their annual ritual of taking on an extra-added electric glow. The added hues and shades of light announce to residents and visitors alike, the holiday season has arrived. New York’s extravagant Christmas lights and decorations provide visual coaxing for what is meant to be a festive time of year in an American city that never sleeps, and loves to shop. Tourists, children and many residents, look at the lights in awe as Department store districts like those in Midtown transform into a Christmas wonderland, where shoppers scurry about like busy elves getting ready for a certain really big night.
From Rockefeller Center and the famous, tall, sculpted and not a spot missed lit tree, to the giant crystal snowflake at 57th and Fifth Avenue, the city is polished and ready for Santa, North Pole bound, almost to the point of perfection in its decoration. Even down in the fashion district new, modern lights, single color snowflakes and stars line the streets, one right after the other in almost accurate order presenting a city that at first glance, appears to have been enrolled in an exterior decorating class. Parts of Manhattan present a polished Christmas, a scene out of a modern “Miracle on 34th Street” where all is planned and occasionally one gets caught up in the brightness of it all. But, sometimes, one stumbles upon an electric display that doesn’t shine as bright as those in Midtown, instead its lights twinkle, and for some unknown reason, it brings back memories, touching on that nostalgic nerve that provides a key to the spirit of Christmas.
According to Mary Bellis at “About.com”, Inventor Edward Johnson was responsible for the first string of Christmas lights back in the late 1890’s. By 1900, Department stores had started using the lights for displays. Later, Albert Sadacca came up with “safe” Christmas lights and eventually started mass producing the brightly colored bulbs through a company called NOMA electric company. Soon enough, cities found themselves taking on the added glow of Christmas displays from coast to coast.
This year in New York, the Christmas lights began appearing as early as Halloween. There was barely time to enjoy Thanksgiving when what would appear but strands of giant green garland across Eighth Street and white stars in the Financial district. Then, at some point, a series of random older Christmas displays were being strung across the streets of the East Village. And, it was in the East Village on 7th Street, near Avenue A, that one display brought back memories of living in a small town in Alabama, when the annual appearance of Christmas decorations in Wilsonville made a small boy thrilled that the season had arrived.
It was in this small town of less than one thousand, usually the day after Thanksgiving, that the boy would ride his bike down to the road, and watch and eagerly wait as men installed the lights, some shaped like canes with bells, others with Santa Clauses faces, others with candles. Hanging from power poles that were normally dark except for an occasional passing car, now were lit with greens, reds and pink. The displays weren’t that polished, instead they twinkled in the wind, almost mystical in nature, to a child, the perfect visual pill of warmth, comfort and hope that Christmas, back then, meant to him. And suddenly, here in New York, amid the hectic brightness of the nation’s largest city, he found that memory in a vintage Christmas display hanging across the street in his busy East Village neighborhood.
There it was, garland lit by lit by pinkish bells hanging in poetic curves that came to point in the middle, framed by a red ribbon. What imperfection, what history, who could say how many Christmases this display had seen? How much had New York changed? How much had the world? One wonders where it’s stored throughout the year. All the New Yorker knew was that he had to pause, to stare, to wonder at its beauty, and its sense of comfort and the fact that it was, unlike so many of the other beautiful displays, a simple key to what the season truly meant. That beauty and hope is everywhere, perhaps even locked inside a memory that only an old Christmas light could set free.