Memories of Christmases past are inevitably brighter, more vivid, and sweeter than any holiday adventure available in the present. Christmas trees were taller, packages more elaborately wrapped, feasts more elaborate, family and friendship more secure.
My wife and I had both been raised in Connecticut, she in a well manicured town, I in what was then dairy farm countryside. We both grew up expecting what might be called the Classic Colonial Christmas experience, steeply roofed white houses welcoming a single evergreen wreath on the red, green, or black front door, candles flickering in every window. Snow arrived on Christmas Eve as if on command; skating ponds froze convincingly. Twinkling lights had begun to appear in storefronts by the time we headed off to college and our own lives, but the most garish display was in the stringing of colored lights on the town’s Christmas tree.
I wasn’t opposed to the more elaborate spasms of holiday decoration that began to appear as our children met their first Christmases, but I didn’t leap into ambitious or competitive illumination. Did I buy a few tasteful inflatable figures? I did. Did I inflate them on the day after Thanksgiving? I did. Did I add a new character each year? Possibly.
In a curious turn of events, we ended up in living in Huntsville, Alabama for five years, during which time, my eldest headed off to college himself, returning for Christmas to the great delight of our younger children. Huntsville is in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, about halfway between Nashville to the north and Birmingham to the south. Snow fell only rarely and never as the kids waited for the scramble of reindeer hooves on Christmas Eve. We might have felt significant cultural dislocation had it not been for the efforts of Dr. John Higginbothom who lived a short distance from our home in South Huntsville.
Higginbotham decorated his home with loving attention to detail. His displays were bright but not gaudy, and all featured characters especially treasured by children ; holiday trains carried stuffed pandas, Charlie Brown fed Snoopy in front of the celebrated dog house as Woodstock perched on Snoopy’s dish, Winnie the Pooh and Eeyore decorated Piglet’s tree. All of these were hand-crafted constructions; lights shone upon them not among them. In the early years, Dr. Higginbotham dressed as Santa, greeting visitors as they approached the house. His neighbors quickly caught the holiday spirit, decorating their houses as well so that a trip to Horseshoe Drive became a Huntsville tradition.
By the time our kids found Horseshoe Trail, Higginbotham had added other actors, elves, snowmen, and for several years, a bounding purple dinosaur. The Grinch found his way to the troupe as well, but the greatest attraction of all was the herd of reindeer penned on Higginbotham’s lawn from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day.
Reindeer wranglers allowed children to pat and feed the reindeer, advising my children that they preferred bananas to any other treat. For years, they pulled on sweaters, mittens, and hats, then pulled a bunch of bananas into a sack before meeting the reindeer again. They were particularly pleased to know that the reindeer liked bananas peel and all.
We moved from Huntsville to Carpinteria, California. Local decorations there often put Santa on a surfboard or motorcycle. We missed the reindeer.
A few years ago. John Higginbotham’s health began to fail; for several years the only decoration of the Higginbotham’s house was a simple wreath. Today, his grandchildren keep his legacy alive by maintaining many of the displays we knew so well. The reindeer, though, have been returned to a reindeer ranch north of Huntsville.
Last night, my daughter and I pulled on mittens and hats, boarded a bus, and set out on a tour of holiday lights in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon. We walked through two neighborhoods that include willingness to participate in ambitious decoration as a condition of ownership. The houses were similar, mini-plantation mansions nestled side-by-side, each festooned with blinking, sweeping, cascading lights. I can’t guess at the wattage expended on a nightly basis, but I assume the neighborhoods can be seen from Mars.
The houses are certainly brightly illuminated, and I have to believe that each display costs a fortune to maintain, but within a few minutes, my daughter and I agreed that there was nothing charming in the excess of light.
We won’t return.
On the way home, however, we convinced the driver to take us by a display we had heard about in a less affluent part of the city. It took some time to find the very ordinary neighborhood in which a man much like John Higginbotham had used his entire lawn to create a snowy landscape, a miniature village with gala groups dancing and skating, all of which was surrounded by train tracks on which five separate holiday themed trains ran in complex configurations, spouting steam and whistling. The detail in the display was arresting. My daughter and I stood in the cold, laughing as we caught sight of each display we had overlooked, such as the school teaching reindeer how to fly by suspending them from tall cables strung across the edge of the village.
There were no crowds lined up to see the trains; we were alone in the dark night, absorbed by the complexity of this small world. As we prepared to leave, the owner of the house came out to make sure we had enjoyed the visit, promising to add another set of trains for next Christmas.
Of course we will return.
Both the reindeer house and the train house were authentic and charming; they were created with generous good humor and with the hope of bringing delight. As I think of my children and the gifts they have been given, I am aware that kindness begins with caring. The brilliant shows of light are decorative, reflecting the owners’ pride in their homes and in their ability to afford elaborate display. Feeding reindeer bananas and putting Santa and elves on the train circling skaters on a pond – those better, funny, gentle, generous, gifts come from people who remember what it was to be a child and to encounter unexpected magic.