My tiny condo is in a complex that links up to a neighborhood of 1980s single-family homes.
Pride of ownership is evident by the care and maintenance of those who reside in them. The occasional wave from a bay window or front lawn is a reassuring gesture that kindness is still alive and well, despite what polls and negative media might tell us.
Over the past week, I discovered neighborly kindness is shining brighter than I knew when Mellie, the Phoenix office dog and director of barketing, and I took an evening stroll. Mellie stops often to read her pmail, which allows me to admire a fresh coat of paint, newly planted annuals, and most recently, the varied display of Christmas lights.
The history of Christmas lights started simply enough with candles attached to a tree with pins or wax. Their flames “signified the light of Jesus” and while beautiful, caused fires when left to burn for more than a few minutes. So, in 1882, Edward Johnson, a friend and partner of light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison, introduced a new and safer concept.
Johnson replaced the candles with a string of eight red-, white-, and blue-colored bulky, pear-shaped electric lights. But the idea didn’t catch on right away in the U.S. because many Americans didn’t trust electricity and it was expensive.
According to Time magazine, “An early set of bulbs would have cost a buyer about a week’s wages, or $80 in today’s dollars. But the nation also grew intrigued and in 1895, President Grover Cleveland helped make Christmas lights popular when he used them to decorate the official White House tree. By the 1920s, General Electric started pre-assembling lights, which became more accessible and cheaper.”
It’s easy to imagine Christmas lights becoming part of “keeping up with the Joneses’’ and then the “let’s one-up them” mentality that some people thought made America great. But in my little neck of Portland that isn’t the case.
A few years ago, before the pandemic, the 2020 election, the insurrection at the Capitol, and everything that happened before masks became fashion accessories, one of my next-street-over neighbors found out another of our neighbors had lost their job. It was a downsizing action that caught the 55-year-old suddenly unemployed single mother of three off guard.
Two of her children were in high school and a third was still in middle school. Struggling with COBRA insurance, and all of life’s expensive details, decorating for Christmas was the last thing on her mind.
It was then that a silent superhero put a $100 bill in an envelope with a note that said something like: “Please get your boys to put up your Christmas lights. They’re always a sweet spot on our street. Use this money to pay the electric bill.”
How do I know this? Because the guy who made it happen has the most stunning display of lights I’ve ever seen. We all understand that as a Jewish kid, I’m no expert, but this guy has a beautiful manger scene with a brown-skinned Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The small animals and the gifts from the wise men are intricate and detailed and the well-lit display takes my breath away every time we pass.
Mellie and I were lucky enough to meet him when he was putting down tiny pieces of straw. Adamant about keeping his name and address to himself, he told me about the mother of three, and a few other strangers he has helped so they can keep their Christmas lights shining.
“Yeah, I don’t care what people’s lights look like,” he said. “To them, they are beautiful. Everybody celebrates Christmas or their holidays a little differently, so why should everything look the same? And that’s not even the point. Could the money I give be spent on food or clothes or something? Sure, but that’s not what this money is for.”
We went on to talk about inflatable displays of huge Santas and elves popping out of boxes. Of music playing 24/7 and flashing lights that could blind a reindeer. Both Mellie and my generous neighbor agree the inflatable, waving, moving giant snowmen are too much, but my neighbor put them in the “decorate as you’d like” category. Mellie would like to bite them.
“There’s something good and normal about decorating for Christmas,” he said. “I can do what I want with my money and I can tell who isn’t putting up their lights around here like they always have.”
When it comes to keeping the beauty of Christmas alive, no one holds a candle to this guy.
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].