Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Lights of Christmas Past

web photo

I was perhaps only three years old on that December evening when my father brought home the bubble lights.
[My parents, younger sister and I lived in several rooms at the north side of my grandfather's farm house until the little house was built just along the road in 1949.]
My father entered, stamping snow from his feet, lunchbox in one hand, a flat paper-wrapped parcel clutched under his arm. Fending off my mother's anxious questions as to his lateness for supper, he dispensed with the lunch box and opened his package with a flourish.
We stood there in my grandfather's kitchen watching as the lid of the shallow box was flipped back like the cover of a book, disclosing a dozen fragile candle-shaped objects, each nestled in a cardboard pocket.
Daddy blew on his chilled fingers, then uncoiled the electrical cord tucked into the back of the box.
"Bubble lights," he explained, "For the Christmas tree.  They're something new."
He poked the plug into the nearest socket, tweaked the box so that it sat up straighter against the front of the Hoosier cabinet.
As we waited, unbelieving, the tiny candles began to glow and then, one at a time, there was a liquid bubbling movement in the delicate glass cylinders.
My father, smelling still of cold and snow, lifted me high so that I could see and marvel.

My father enjoyed the ritual of bringing home and decorating a Christmas tree. It was he who selected the inexpensive ornaments, coming home each season with a string of new lights, a different sparkly length of tinsel.  He grew testy over the arrangement of these baubles, standing back to scowl at the tree and declare that it didn't "look right."
My mother usually managed to find some pressing task in the kitchen while we three girls hovered with Daddy around the tree. 
"Look," he'd fuss, "There's a green light there--and another one right there--that's too close; we need to move a different color bulb into that spot."
The fact of the matter was that my father was partially color-blind [a trait he managed to hand along to two of his grandsons.]
Mother attempted to explain this handicap to us at some point with the strict injunction that we weren't to comment when our father couldn't see the difference, say, between a blue Christmas light and a green one.
"If the bulb doesn't look "blue" to Daddy, what color does he see", we asked, naughtily.
There was, of course no reliable answer.
The bubble lights were in use for nearly a decade, problematic treasures though they proved to be.  Each miniature candle needed to be clipped to its branch so that it stood straight as a soldier. Allowed to droop one way or the other the "bubbling" ceased.
They were replaced eventually with more conventional tree lights--the kind where if one bulb "blew" the rest kept bravely glowing.
Over the years as he drove to and from work or on errands Daddy noted when the Christmas decorations were put up in the nearby town of Brandon and in the city of Rutland.
It became a ritual to set aside an evening during those weeks before Christmas to ride slowly past the showy displays in the town centers and then to drive through the residential streets, admiring [or criticizing] the ingenuity which juxtaposed a reverent manger scene bathed in blue and white lights with a gaudy Santa's sleigh outlined in glaring red and green bulbs.
My father bought strings of lights meant for outdoor use to bedeck the front doorway.  He fretted over what time to turn the lights on, and whether to turn them off at bedtime.  As the days counted down toward Christmas Eve the lights shone out through the long nights.
There was the memorable Christmas when, with the tree already trimmed to [near] satisfaction, Daddy appeared at lunch time with two cans of areosal "snow."
"Smith's Store have their windows sprayed with it," he announced.
He gave the first can a tentative shake, stood back and aimed it at the center of the tree.  There was a wet dribble of something which didn't resemble snow.
Swearing, Daddy gave the can a violent shaking, stepped closer and blasted the top of the tree, "snowing" on the gilded  angel and covering a patch of the ceiling with a sticky goo which immediately and permanently dried to a cement-like crust.
My sisters and I looked on in fascination. Mother, lured from the kitchen by the sounds of crisis, "humphed" in tardy disapproval of the experiment.
The second can of snow [perhaps because it had now come to room temperature] behaved better and Daddy achieved a nice woodland effect of snow-tipped branches, although some of the snow landed on the tips of the colored bulbs.

The Christmases of childhood blur together when reviewed in later decades. My two younger sisters may read this and wonder if I have imagined these events.

As Dylan Thomas so aptly put it,
"I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."

There were many holidays white with the weight of drifted snow, picure-perfect; there was the Christmas when I was given a new sled and the early December accumulation of snow had been rained upon and stood in dirty runnels edging frost-browned grass and rigid expanses of mud.
There were generous Christmases and the leaner ones when we were too young to know at what sacrifice the gifts still appeared beneath the tree.
There was the joy as we grew older of giving gifts, rather than merely waiting to receive.
There was music--always music: from the Silvertone radio; from the phonograph; carols played on the piano.
There was tension, ritual, sweets, anticipation.
Sometimes there were those still  snatched moments when the joy of the season crept close enough to embrace--late night moments to sit beside my father's decorated Christmas tree, dreaming in the soft shine of lights-- red, blue, green and star-white.


  1. My father was also color blind, but it doesn't seem to have been passed on to either my son or my sister's son. I have so many memories of my childhood even from when I was two years old, but so little about family Christmases. You sound as though your family Christmases were warm and loving -- cuddly almost!

  2. How lovely those bubble lights sounds. We only ever had the cheapest sort and then not until the mid 60s probably. You write so well. All my creativity has gone down a big black hole at the moment. I wish it would resurface . . .

    I've never heard of anything like that. We have about 5" of snow here this morning which, although it doesn't sound much on the scale of things, effectively keeps us off the road unless on foot.

  3. What a lovely post. I have fond memories of my grandparents tree, I am sad that none of their decorations survived but when we came here, I found some old ones in the attic that belonged to the old lady who lived here. Wishing you, your family and beautiful cats have a lovely Chrsitmas.

  4. Thanks for sharing your Christmas memories.


  5. What lovely memories you have. I remember the bubble lights, i think we had some too. My Mother decorated our tree though my Dad always put the lights on. I can remember shaking boxes and trying to guess what was inside and staying awake most of Christmas Eve waiting till it was light enough for us to run out and start opening packages. I think my older sister and I taught our younger sister to tell time by constantly sending her out to the kitchen to look at the clock and then coming back and telling us what number the hands were at, we'd then tell her the time. LOL

  6. I have only ever met one other person who had these bubble lights, one of my longest standing friends, we went to college together. Each Christmas he has carefully put them on a tree and has done so now for over fifty years. Sadly, over the years they became fewer and fewer and I do not know if he still has any by now. They were fascinating but I have never seen them anywhere else.

  7. What lovely Christmas memories! I know i've seen those bubble lights somewhere...maybe a childhood friend had them on a tree or something...they're really quite magical!