In my old neighborhood, everybody had garages, so nobody talked to each other. But there were exactly two situations that caused my neighborhood to acknowledge its own existence: criminal episodes involving a fire truck or more than one police car, and Christmas. That’s when we became the “light neighborhood.” The one featured in the newspaper and the limo tours. A collective.
There was one other neighborhood that was better. They had a fence made out of candy canes stretching the entire length of the street; life-size woodcuts of the Charlie Brown gang. One family had a full-blown Santa’s village mall display. Another family had a projector in their driveway that played “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” And they all had so much money that none of this was impressive, because there were no outliers. Every single house had the best Christmas decorations I’ve ever seen, which means none of them did.
But our neighborhood had “the barn,” an actual barn that survived its habitat’s sputtering descent toward tract housing in the late ‘80s. The owner of this barn wasn’t all that rich, he was just really into Christmas, and he bought every decoration imaginable. He had no particular theme or aesthetic ambition. A Nativity scene next to a Grinch going down a chimney. Polar bears in fighter jets. Every inch of real estate had some kitsch monument on it. Inflatable snowmen next to “Don’t Tread On Me” flags. It was a cocaine heart attack sponsored by Tom Kinkade, and I’d walk down there every night.
It was like living next door to a rodeo. The only way more people could have been crammed on that boring little street in December is if the country station set up a broadcast booth and the FFA had a hamburger stand. There was no reliable way to exit your driveway until ten at night. Going to the grocery store was more braking than driving, the driving school doomsday scenario you have nightmares about at 15.
Gradually, the decorating standards of the neighborhood rose to accommodate the increased publicity. Candy cane garden arches. American flags made out of Christmas lights sabotaging perfectly good dead lawns. One guy lit every single branch on his tree and hung a sign on it: “Dedicated To Those Who Have Fallen In The Line Of Duty.” The entire neighborhood was sponsoring the rodeo except us, because we didn’t have any money. We were the first house people saw when they rounded the bend after the grand tour, and we had nothing.
Actually, we had something a bit worse than nothing: one strand of tasteful, incandescent yellow lights running the front of our house and terminating at the garage. I would stay up in bed all night, guilty about their inferiority, which was clearly a reflection of the family as a unit. Socially, no decorations would have been easy to account for – we just didn’t celebrate Christmas. That’d be easy. But one strand of yellow lights meant we celebrated it wrong.
I always imagined if a little girl saw our house after the makeshift Disneyland around the bend, she’d start crying. I imagined she was in the back seat of a 1999 Toyota Land Cruiser, with a nice cup of hot cocoa, and mom and dad were playing Burl Ives in the front seat, she didn’t have to wear her seat belt just this once, and she was asking which reindeer was everybody’s favorite, and she’d see our failure and break down in tears. “Why doesn’t that family believe in magic? Why can’t everybody be happy? Why don’t they feel what I feel?”
My family bitched about the competition incessantly, which I imagine every family does in secret.(Just last night, when we got roped into the festive traffic jam, my brother sighed dramatically and just said “assholes.”) I’d play along, but I enjoyed the spectacle. Whenever being in the house got too sad, if an argument broke out, I’d go to the barn and stare at the polar bear in the fighter jet and wonder who would make such a thing. Maybe give a quarter to the Salvation Army bell ringer or at least rummage through my pockets as an acknowledgement that I felt the correct amount of guilt.
Each year somebody figured out a way to make things louder. One year, a twenty-foot tall shooting star ornament was added on the side of the barn. Then a Santa Claus showed up to give people candy canes. Now they’ve got a PA system cranking Christmas music. If it ever snowed, we’d be an Infiniti commercial.
But each year our house stayed sad. Each year I imagined that archetypal happy middle-class girl having her spirit broken. Finally I told my dad, and he agreed something should be done, because we were becoming proportionately bigger buzzkills each year. He knew he couldn’t win, of course. There was no point in even trying. There was a dollar figure attached to winning.
After a couple days of false starts, he had a workable idea for saving face. There was a big bush in front of our house that covered up the base of a street light. So he bought a couple boxes of lights and dug some wood out of the garage, and soon had an identifiable Santa face to cover the bush. A wad of yellow lights for each eye, a few for the mouth, and a triangle of red lights for the hat.
The eyes weren’t right. One rested a bit lower than the other. It didn’t fit on the bush properly, because it was secured by medical tubing tied to a chain link fence. But from across the street, it was definitely Santa Claus. And that year, cars started slowing down to gawk at it. By my dad’s reckoning, 40,000 people have seen the Santa Claus bush. He leads conversations with it and people usually know what he’s talking about.
Three years later, my dad moved out. The Santa Claus display migrated from the garage to the side yard, next to the busted propane grill and an unbelievable amount of spiders. Getting to it required torching all the spiders, which meant it was essentially retired.
But when I was home for Christmas, I’d go get the blowtorch and retrieve Santa. Even after the spiders were mostly dead — they were never all dead — it was still a huge pain in the ass, because attaching medical tubing to a bungee cord to a chain link fence is all art and zero science. And when I had just enough egg nog (recipe: add egg nog to Jim Beam until people aren’t suspicious of the balance) to get sentimental, I’d go out and watch the cars staring at my dad’s Santa. And I’d always leave the lights on until 3 a.m. or so, just to beat the barn in sheer perseverance.
Eventually, people started posing for pictures in front of the Santa with surprising frequency. One year four girls piled out of a minivan and their dad took a picture of them giving the thumbs up in front of it, and I finally felt like we had a moral victory in our private little class war.
Somebody else lives in that house now, but they still drag out the wood and the bungee cord and the medical tubing and they put up the Santa Claus. They don’t store it in the side yard though. They keep it in the garage.