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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Art

Fantasy versus reality.
Over the many years in which I've been blogging, I've written Christmas items on Santa Claus, his great grandfather, St. Nicholas, his mother, Grandma Moses, nativities, annunciations...everything short of Seuss' Grinch and Grandmas mowed down by reindeer. However there is one Christmas art form I've never expounded upon which we all enjoy to some degree but which, for some reason, we seldom really think of as a form of art. Yet, like most art it's usually quite beautiful, often extremely creative, readily accessible in most areas, and seems to embody the very best and perhaps even the worst elements of what we term "the spirit of Christmas." I'm talking about the seasonal display of tiny little colored bulbs of glass we call holiday light decorations draped ceremoniously over everything from eave spouts and evergreens to mailboxes and garbage cans.

Safer than candles, though maybe not much--around 1893.
Christmas light displays were originally candles mounted on evergreen trees in Germany as far back the 18th century. Tradition has it fire extinguishers were first developed about the same time. Electrically speaking, we Americans have one Edward H. Johnson, a colleague of no less than Thomas A. Edison himself, to thank for the first Christmas display of colored lights, dating from December 22, 1882. He had a string of 80 cherry-size bulbs in red, white, and blue custom made, which he hand wired himself then strung over a Christmas tree at his home on Fifth Avenue in New York City. The British in London may have utilized similar strings of lights a year or so earlier. Though too expensive for home use, businesses from that point on often utilized such lighting displays in their store windows or draped around entries.

If one burned out, they all went out.
Early light strings even included Florescents.

Though the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA) began large-scale sales of Christmas lights for home use as early as 1917, it wasn't until the 1930s that such lights became common. During the war years, rationing ended such sales and even curtailed the use of existing lights, but then with the social and economic optimism of the 1950s in the U.S., Christmas lights moved from indoor trees to those outside and from there spread over virtually every surface, nook, and cranny not likely to be trampled upon by Santa Claus. Moreover, it wasn't long before Santa himself was lit up along with Rudolph and his eight tiny reindeer friends. Christmas lights got smaller, cheaper, brighter, more dependable, and burned less electricity. Starting in the 1990s and  especially in more recent years, the LED and its tiny computer cousins have added the element of time and music to such lighting extravaganzas, in which private homes often surpass business displays both in size and creativity. Entire communities (and not just big cities) began to challenge Rockefeller Center (below) for the yuletide spotlight.

2012, Rockefeller Center, New York City
As with every art form, once the amateurs get involved, good taste, even common sense, often goes out the window, onto the sidewalk, and up the street. The good old American "bigger is always better/too much is not enough" mentality takes over. Traffic management becomes a headache, the neighbors complain, lawsuits arise, ordinances get passed, and St. Nicholas rolls over in his grave. I, myself, must plead guilty to having more lights than anyone in our neighborhood (mostly white with a little blue around the front door). It takes an entire afternoon to rig them up and a couple hours to take them down and store them away. Yet in some areas, my lighting would be modestly average at best. An over lit front yard visible a mile away has been known to cause traffic mishaps. An 80-foot 50,000 light tree in Rockefeller Center is a national Christmas landmark. The same tree at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac is the proverbial "nightmare before Christmas."
Christmas run amok!

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