Light’s Out in New England


Here we are.  A whole new year thrust upon us.  And almost as proof of this, there is the subtle change of landscape that I witness every year about this time.  Our holiday lights are slowly coming down, and for me, it’s an adjustment.  A spot that was once bathed in sparkle, is now just—well, I guess its true self.  We are putting the lights away until next year.  

So, it’s official.  It’s time to get back to the business of being salty New Englanders.

I spent an odd amount of time this year looking at house lights and wondering about the personalities of the people that put them up.  For instance, here in Manchester and Essex there is no shortage of the tasteful white lights that outline the roofs and house edges.  I picture an engineer at work there.  That person has calculated the length of their roofline and coordinated it with the length of their tasteful, matching lights.  They might also add a candle in every window.  It’s a crisp no-nonsense approach that I appreciate, and when there are multiple houses adorned this way, it feels oh so New England.

Conversely, there are also the homes with lights that look almost partially installed.  Like the motivation was there on a warm December afternoon, but then some of the strands didn’t turn on and it started to get dark and cold, and oh well, maybe we’ll just highlight that one little shrub this year.  If this, is you (and it has been me) I’m here to say that I appreciate your effort!  No, it didn’t quite pull together this year like you thought, but nonetheless you bravely turned on that string of lights every night, and probably made that shrub feel pretty good about itself in the process.  Don’t worry.  You’ll get ‘em next year.

Then there are those go-big-or-go-home gamblers that have the giant blown-up, nylon Santa’s on their front yard with a blower at his feet.  I get the appeal.  These cloth sculptures offer a big statement with minimal headaches and just a little bit of space needed to store it away when the party’s over.  But how minimal is that headache?  Because the WOW-factor that comes when they are operating properly, seems to be pretty well counter balanced by how SAD they look when they are deflated on the front yard.  Like maybe Santa got involved in a horrible accident and is now lying flat on the lawn in his worst pair of underwear for all the world to see.  Oh Santa, how the mighty have fallen!  I avert my gaze as I drive by.

Probably the least festive to me are the short-cut lights.  These busy folks throw a netting of lights over a shrub or two, and maybe some icicle lights on their porch.  They are all about bang for their installation-buck.  Their lights technically say Happy Holidays, but when I drive by, I suspect somebody’s heart is just not in it.  (And by the way, don’t believe the packaging.  That netting isn’t fooling anyone.)

But how about the more-is-more houses?  What’s up with these folks?  Do they go so over the top because they are just over the top themselves and they love it all so much that climate change, traffic, and their electric bill will not deter their instinct to go all-in?  Because I’ve got respect for that kind of commitment.  

But part of me wonders if perhaps that process has taken on a life of its own, and if they are left feeling a little bit burdened by the responsibility.  I mean, are the kids and grandkids all grown, and has arthritis kicked in, but darn it they bought that shed to store all that stuff in and by now the neighbors are asking and so up it goes year after year?  Are they putting it all up not because it brings them joy, but because they can’t figure out a way to stop?  

I find it all a little unsettling, and I tend to drive by those homes like they’re a crime scene on a dark night.  I drive by slowly, to take it all in, but I also lock the doors because it feels like just about anything could happen there.

My ex-husband used to put up lights that he would string into the shape of stars or snowflakes. It was a labor-intensive project involving bungee cords and scaffolding, ladders and string.  He enjoyed the artistic expression of it, and that was sweet to see.  They looked great at night, but during the day it had a little bit of a “backstage” quality that leaned towards messy to my eye. And, if one of the strings gave out then nobody could really tell what was going on, night or day.  So, it was a delicate affair that took a good amount of fiddling and adjusting, probably a little bit like our marriage.

Oddly, the lights that have spoken to me the most this year are those put up by the quirky single-stranders.  Now at first glance you may confuse them with the partially finished folks, because their trees can look a bit sparse.  But they are not at all alike.  The single-stranders tend to use lights in a color, which alone can be refreshing.  And they tend to spiral the strand loosely around the branches of a medium sized tree.  The lights cling from one branch to the next creating a swoopy shape that the tree dictates.  It looks almost like a giant hand reached down and gently looped that tree with lights from above.  The spiraling swoop ends when the string of lights does.  And when I drive by, I can almost hear a quiet “tah-da” being issued from those branches.  Their sweet simplicity buoyed me through the holiday season, and I’m sorry to see them go.

There are more types of lights to consider.  How about the projected images of snowstorms that we see now lighting up the fronts of houses?  (I haven’t figured those people out yet, but the effect is pretty enough.)  But time is short and my rustic, unadorned New England landscape beckons.

But I don’t know, is that bare landscape really unadorned?  Just take a walk on the beach at sunset, or step out onto your porch to experience the softness and quiet that comes with an evening snowstorm.  I think it’s still sparkly out.  It’s just coming at us in a different way.

Jen Coles is a professional home designer and mother of four who lives in Manchester.

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