On tackychristmasyards.com, there's a lot to look at. Christmas light offenses are filed under category headings like "Griswolds" and "More is Not Less," the latter featuring one large outdoor tree so heaving with bulbs, balls and holiday bric-a-brac that it earned this caveat from site founder Kat Shumar: "It's sort of like when someone throws a dinner party with an Italian menu and then decides to throw in some Chinese food, Mexican food and Cajun food, too."
It's easy to revile Christmas lights for wastefulness, excess and competitiveness - not exactly the three pillars of Christmas. But hating on twinkly lights is a purely contrarian stance, like hating on panda bears. It's fashionable cynicism. This year, I say: Resist. Behold six reasons to love Christmas lights:
1) An urgent blast of light in the cavernous depths of the season pre-dates Christianity. Before the Yule log became a TV show, it was a pagan ritual: A lit log was meant to last throughout the darkest days of the season, either to lure back the sun at the Winter Solstice or ward off evil. Really, the Yule log was an early form of those lamps that battle Seasonal Affective Disorder.
In most parts of our fair country, the winter weather menu is pretty much "Would you like some coldness with your darkness?" Light in the darkness, then, is not only a timely spiritual metaphor, but a means of warding off crazy in the bowels of winter. We live in Canada. All weapons against winter craziness must be engaged.
2) In the Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians brought evergreens into their homes to signal spring. Then, in the 18th century, German immigrants likely brought the first Christmas tree to Canada, resting candles on its branches. But most homeowners permitted the glory of a candlelit tree for only a few minutes at a time because of the whole fire's-deleterious-effect-on-wood issue.
Sniffing a hole in the market, wily Thomas Edison launched seasonal bulbs in 1880. According to a paper by Yale student Brian Murray, early Christmas lights were for the wealthy only: A 16-foot strand could cost $12. Most people just rented.
Only by the mass-producing mid-1950s did lights become a North American staple, a boom-time signpost and postwar declaration of a bright future. All of which is to say that, unlike the waxy alternative, Christmas lights will usually not kill you.
3) The Christmas light abolitionists fall into two different snob camps: environmental and aesthetic. Yes, Christmas lights waste energy and produce greenhouse gases. But some conscience-soothing solutions include LED or solar-powered lights, timers and, perhaps, simple discretion: If you must be the guy who sets up a live Guitar Hero light show on the side of his house, turn it off sometimes.
Less easily resolved, aesthetic snobbery is mired in Martha Stewart-style tyranny, the kind of anal-clenching world view that believes little white fairy lights suffice. These people are maybe classist and definitely out of touch with the childlike delight in clashing rainbow hues and toppled inflatable snowmen. These people suffer the very Canadian syndrome summed up in the Alice Munro title Who Do You Think You Are?
But Christmas is about joy, and there's no greater joy than excess. The big, crass, clumsy, gather-round Christmas-light display is a sounded yawp that says: I'm here! I'm feeling the love! I've had too much eggnog!
4) Rarely do we get to play artist and execute our private idea of beauty for the public. Lights, singing, preparing the meal - all these Christmas gestures are performance.
At the bottom of my street is a grim, decrepit high-rise with a perpetual "For Rent" banner across the top. People go in and out, living lives that invite no investigation. But for a few weeks in December, there are, if you look up from the sidewalk, lights curved like skipping ropes across a few high-up balconies - signs of the human drive for creation. And also very pretty.
5) Religion is complicated, but Christmas lights aren't. At this point, they're a shared ritual, not quite secular (arriving as they do around the time of Jesus's birthday) but in tune with the spirit of the holiday rather than the liturgy. My Portuguese, Indian and Jewish neighbours all go bright or go home.
The ritual is in the hanging. On a cold weekend afternoon, even the neighbours who never come out come out with their boxes of lights. The man down the street who's grown older and is now in his motorized chair watches his son-in-law do the stringing this year. These pictures line up with memories of my brother and I laughing as my dad swore at the tangled mass of lights. Our kids are old enough now to laugh at us, too.
Then, finally and always, there's the satisfying step back, the murmur of accomplishment up and down the block as everyone is forgiven their burnt-out bulbs and imperfections.