In the weeks leading up to Christmas, New York City evenings grow a little brighter.
Electric holiday displays and decorations announce to residents and visitors alike that the holiday season has arrived on the streets. It's been said the lights have the power to seduce shoppers and tourists into the holiday spirit, which has been known to encourage spending. Some stop and take in all the added hues, but others don't' even notice they are there. Department store districts like the big stores that line 5th Avenue in Midtown, transform themselves into an electric Christmas wonderland, kind of retail Disney on Parade where shoppers, strollers and tourists, both foreign and domestic, chatter and scurry about like delegations of elves, each preparing for a big event..
From Rockefeller Center and the famous, tall, sculpted and not a spot missed tree, to the giant crystal snowflake at 57th and Fifth Avenue, the city is polished up for a diplomatic visit from Santa..
Even down in the canyons of the old garment district, sleek, modern single colored snowflakes shine bright alongside identically colored lit stars, one right after the other. The lights say city pizzazz, despite the fact similar models have been seen in suburban communities across the nation. Down on 14th street similar design, and yet another set of perfect almost identical stars line 8th Street from west village to east, off-white stars trailed by electric stardust.
But, this being New York, there's always a chance that the next corner you turn, should you you take time to glance upward or even down a certain side of the street, you'll find more random displays of illuminated cheer. Lights that may be hanging from an apartment's fire escape, a tree placed strategically in someone's window or even a randomly placed holiday decoration.
Such was the case just a few years ago, when during a night time bike ride in the east village there appeared a long green garland display, hanging in poetic curves above the street. The Christmas lights hung across the street from north side to the south, attached to two street poles, basically crowning the street below. The garland was donned by small bells, and different colored lights throughout the display. In the middle, a big red bow. As the wind blew, the old thing appeared almost fragile, swinging back and forth- but then, the wind blew the garland's skinny fake grass strands and they bristled causing the lights to twinkle.
It took a second look, then a few minutes of solitary gazing to fully realize the beauty of these old twinkling lights, and the emerging memory from the bike rider's childhood.
Although New York City had been home for over 20 years, his roots are in a one stop light village of what was less than a thousand people called Wilsonville, Alabama. For him, excitement would come the day after Thanksgiving, when he'd ride his bike down to the main road, state highway 25 for the installation of the town's official Christmas decorations.
Back in the 1970's the old electric displays in the town, at least for a few years, were really random and festive. Some were shaped like curving candy canes, others had bells, there were even tinsel framed plastic Santa Clauses, a few red candles here and there too. Hues of red, blue, pink and green suddenly lit up the power poles casting warm glowing light along the dark roads around the little town.
Thomas Edison invented the lights. But, inventor Edward Johnson was responsible for the first string of Christmas lights back in the late 1890's according to a researchers at the Library of Congress. By 1900, Department stores had started using them for Christmas displays-to entice shoppers. Later, Albert Sadacca came up with "safe" Christmas lights and recognizing the market potential, he started mass producing the brightly colored bulbs through a company called NOMA. Soon too, local downtown retailers and business groups worked with cities and towns to invest in in public Christmas lights for lamp poles and posts as well. They came in all shapes, sizes and colors, in cities, towns and villages from coast to coast-including Wilsonville.
Most nights in that small sweet town were like any other in America. Roads are relatively dark and quiet, except for the occasional passing car or the sound of a train usually heading some place else.
When the Christmas lights in Wilsonville came down after the holidays ended, he'd feel so sad, as if all the excitement, the joy they brought had been turned off. He wondered aloud one night, why can't they just leave those bright lights up all year, to which his Mom explained, the decorations wouldn't be special if they were always there.
But here in the big city of lights, where it's always bright and new holiday displays often burn brighter than Broadway, a set of old, twinkling lights had whispered and gotten his attention.
Imperfect, yet lovely, he wondered how many holiday seasons the old weathered bells seen? How many others had they charmed? Where do these old whispering lights stay when they don't hang from these light poles? And, will they come back next year?
But then, he realized that didn't matter. The sense of comfort, anticipation, joy and hope they provided was all he needed. He'd been ushered into the spirit of the season through a simple re acquaintance with a memory. It was a memory that held the key to what this season meant to him. It was the sort of moment that proved beauty, hope and joy is everywhere, but sometimes one has to make the effort to take time and find it. In this case, it was in an old Christmas light decoration hanging across an East Village street..