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Suburban Diary

Can the clear and the colored lights live in holiday peace?

A display of Christmas lights outside the author’s house in Braintree.

Rich Fahey

A display of Christmas lights outside the author’s house in Braintree.

BRAINTREE — Christmas lights are a very personal thing, and they divide people into two distinct camps: colored lights and white, or clear, lights.

For many years, those old, clunky, easily-breakable colored lights were the norm. Clark Griswold, the character played by Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s “Vacation” film series, wasn’t the only person to have major problems with those suckers, which tended to overheat and set Christmas trees ablaze, especially when you overloaded an outlet with several strands.

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Lights gradually became smaller, more efficient, and cheaper. With the advent of LED lights, they seem even brighter and are much less costly to run.

And while the cost and the efficiency of the light strands have changed, so, apparently, have tastes.

Rich Dubois, one of the managers at the Christmas Place in Abington, a large seasonal outlet for all things Christmas, estimates that about 75 percent of the lights they sell are clear ones.

“That hasn’t changed much in recent years,” he said.

Somewhere along the way, clear lights apparently became connected with sophistication and elegance and became the light of choice in many neighborhoods.

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The neighborhood I lived in for 30 years in Milton was about 85 to 90 percent white lights, usually augmented by a spotlight trained on a front-door wreath.

I have always come down squarely in both camps. In Milton, my Christmas tree was all white, as was my front-yard light pole.

My white lights were nice, but Christmas to me is also the red of the poinsettia, the green of the wreath, and the orange of the advent candle, and so colored lights decorated my dogwood tree and were strung around the front door.

Now that I’m in Braintree, my white tree and white LED reindeer are augmented by two bushes with colored lights.

In 2009, the Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, wrote an article for his blog that also appeared in a local newspaper. He had been in Hingham just a few months when he wrote: “Hingham is a white light kind of town. At least that’s how it appears as I drive up and down Main Street. No giant blow up Christmas Shreks or snowglobe Frostys or flashing colored lights. Which is fine with me since I’m not really into the whole decorated Christmas Elvis scene.”

He noted that when he moved into the St. John’s rectory in summer 2009, it was made clear that white lights in the windows during December weren’t really optional.

“Of course, the contrarian in me wants to string up a few silver- and gold-tinseled faux Christmas wreaths with flashing colored lights in the historic district just to see what would happen,” he wrote. “Would they cause traffic accidents? Would citizens keel over in horror? Would there be an influx of patients in the emergency room at South Shore Hospital suffering from bad-taste-itis? I’m not sure. Which is why I’m so tempted to experiment.”

A recent call to Schenck found that the clergyman had not followed up on his “threat.”

“I’m fine with Christmas lights of all types, colors, and varieties,” he said. “We’ve kept to the white lights in the windows here at the St John’s rectory, but I love driving through neighboring communities and being awed by the gaudy majesty of some of the displays.”

Presumably, he was referring to the lit-up Santa I had for a few years, which I more or less had to keep and display after my daughter won it in CCD class for having a birthday closest to Christmas. God bless my neighbors.

Peaceful coexistence is not always the case. Two years ago, in a town house development in Doylestown Township, a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, a resident was fined $400 — $10 for each of 40 days during 2010 that she defied the ­homeowners association’s decree that
only white lights could be used for holiday decorations. Other homeowners have also displayed colored lights, and many are petitioning the association to have the ban overturned.

Schenck said let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with all those who decorate.

“As long as people remember that the lights — whatever the colors — are symbols of the Light of Christ, I’m good with that,” he said. “In other words, there’s no need to start a holy war over Christmas lights.”

Amen to that. When it comes to holiday lights, I side with the Romans: Fiat lux (let there be light). Colored or clear, string them and light them and let them help us take back the night during the holiday season.

Rich Fahey can be reached at
fahey.rich2@gmail.com.

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