All of the Lights

Across the street, my neighbors have already put up their Christmas lights. Yesterday, as I was backing out of the driveway on my way to a family dinner, I saw two young men standing on their front lawn, an intimidating tangle of Christmas lights at their feet. 

One of them had his hands on his hips, a concerned look on his face. The other was texting someone – it didn’t seem like they would get the job done anytime soon, but then again, they were professionals. I wished them a silent good luck and drove off. This morning, the “icicles” are up and dripping rainwater.

We used to put up Christmas lights, the only family on the block to get up on a ladder and do it ourselves. My brother, father and I would spend the morning untangling the lights, go in for lunch, and then come back out and hang them up on nails we had driven into the edge of our roof when we first moved here. At our old house we used the giant, multicolored bulbs that now, mostly evoke the 80’s and early 90’s, but moving here, we saw that the neighbors used the smaller white lights so we switched, too. A few years ago we stopped putting lights up. It was, as the excuse goes, “too much trouble.”

Too much trouble. Photo from

 And though I missed them at first, I too, was relieved when the holidays were over and there was one less thing to put away. On top of that, we live in a strange area which, once a year is assaulted by the Devil’s breath, also known as the Santa Ana winds. They blow ferociously around the house, knocking over my mother’s potted plants, rolling them into the swimming pool and sometimes, cracks brittle tree branches. They cause fires which is the last thing anyone needs around the holidays and make your skin dry and ashy, which is also blows (pun intended) when you are trying to look your best for friends and family and photographs. They tear the Christmas lights this way and that, and sometimes, damages the bulbs so that when we plug the lights in, half of the strand is dark. Our house then looks like a sullen face with one garish eyebrow.

But the winds can’t touch what’s on the inside (unless some idiot leaves a window or two open). 


Except for a few outlying years where Christmas was randomly held at my cousin’s or aunt’s house, the party is at our house. Those exceptions however, occurred three years in a row and burned themselves in my father’s brain – he began to think that perhaps Christmas would never be at our house again.

Somewhere in the middle of this, we remodeled our house. During, my father took stock of all the things we had in the garage and made the decision to clear out our junk. He informed me of his decision, and I applauded him. He, my mother and the rest of the Asian immigrants from their generation are notorious pack rats, so it was nice to see that he was making an attempt to be otherwise. And for a while, it did seem like we had more room in the garage. Except when the holidays rolled around and it was decided that our house, newly remodeled, would once again be the place to have the annual family Christmas party, I couldn’t find the Christmas decorations.

To be more specific, I couldn’t find our ornaments – none of which were particularly expensive, but they had great sentimental value – at least to me. There were ornaments my mother and aunts had made for their first Christmas here in the United States and a few others that solely by being manufactured three decades ago, were simply of better quality than ornaments today. Lastly, there were the half-dozen or so handcrafted popsicle stick ornaments my brother and I had made in preschool and elementary school – rudimentary but completely original creations with our childhood photographs in them. We wrote things like, “Merry Christmas Mom and Dad,” in our child’s script on the back of them, and even though they were meant for our parents, I would have been happy to take them with me to my future home.

Inexplicably, my father saw the ornaments as “junk” and kept instead the dozens of empty jars, boxes, paper bags, unused yet outdated appliances and suitcases – all utterly replaceable.

When I discovered that the ornaments were gone, glittering lonesomely in some distant landfill, I berated my father. What a Grinch he was, I cried (though I do not think there is a Chinese word for “Grinch,” and instead must have used the Chinese word for “shitty person”), how could he throw away things with so much history and keep all the junk?

“We stopped putting up lights so many years ago and haven’t had the party here for three years,” my father said, “I imagined it was only a matter of time before we stopped putting up the tree too.”

I was old enough then to accept that what was done was done and I said so.

“What’s done is done,” I said, “but we are going to put up a tree for as long as I live at home. That’s something I don’t ever want to give up.” 

My father nodded, “Yes.” His face was thoughtful, but he did not seem particularly sorry.

A few days later however, he accompanied me to buy the tree, and when we had stationed it in the corner of our newly remodeled living room, he stood back and said, “It is quite nice to have a tree, whether we have a party here or not, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“Will you go and buy more ornaments?” he asked.

I nodded again, though my heart winced to think of our old ornaments.

“Buy some nice ones you really like,” he said, then with a sigh, “I didn’t know you’d want to put the tree up again.”

I looked at him then and realized he must have been feeling a subtle but supreme regret. He had had the best intentions when he was clearing out the clutter, but erred in his judgement.

It didn’t matter. It was Christmas and in a few days the family would be gathered at our house again, There would be presents and people around the tree; good food, rowdy laughter and fond memories. The ornaments, no matter how old or handcrafted, had never been the focal point of our gathering.

“Thanks Bah,” I said, “I’ll get them tomorrow. It’ll still be a beautiful tree.”

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