See Our Lights, Read Our Minds

Blogger’s note: Here is my favorite holiday post from 2008:


University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling studies what personal spaces — like offices and bedrooms — can tell us about their owners.  These rooms are particularly revealing about whether the occupant is open and conscientious, Gosling says.

All of this — which Gosling refers to as the “science of snooping” — validates my most recent theorizing about holiday lights.  So I’m not a scientist — big deal.  I’ve got two eyes and lots of opinions.

For example: Right now, around our neighborhood, holiday lights blaze at night.  All-white seems to be the predominant trend this year.  (This figures.  Our own house, of course, has multicolored lights.  If we ever get all-white lights, it won’t be till they’re out of style.)

But anyway, nosing around our neighborhood (which I cleverly disguise as “taking a walk”), I’ve come up with a new, important theory that Gosling might be interested in.  Here it is:  The more dramatic, professional and dazzling the lights, the less neighborly the homeowners are.

Take the people who live catti-corner from us.  At least, I think people live there, behind the big, unwelcoming, Gulag-styled brick wall they erected a couple of years ago.  Sometimes I see cars come and go, but I’ve rarely seen people.  Nobody in our neighborhood has ever spoken to them, either.  But we’re pretty sure the house is populated.

These neighbors’ lights, though — white, of course, and professionally installed — flash and twinkle all night long this time of year.  They’re not as warm and comforting as neighborly chats and waves, but at least they’re dependable.

At our house, you can see another personality dynamic at work.  Our lights this year look very much like the lights we displayed last year.  And the year before.  That’s because they’re the same lights we’ve had up for years; we just don’t turn them on till late November.  From this information, you can reasonably surmise that we’re slobs.  But, I like to think, we’re neighborly slobs.

That’s some information — but it’s only a start.  You can always dig deeper and find out more.

You can see, in our year-round holiday lights, the story of a long-married couple.  Every year, after Thanksgiving, he climbed up on the roof and decorated the house and it looked great.  Every January, she started nagging him to take them down.  Some years, when she was feeling especially vocal, they came down in February or March.  (January was always just a dream.)  Other years, they were up till May or till a new roof was put on.

The years passed.  One year, the holiday lights were still up in July. How do you ask someone to take the holiday lights down when it’s only five months till Christmas?  “Pretend they’re early this year,” he said.  She did.

After that, she knew it was over.  It was one of those battles she finally surrendered — like the dirty socks on the floor, homemade fireworks on the Fourth of July, presents on Christmas morning, instead of Christmas Eve.

She saved herself for bigger battles, such as which house they should buy (she had been right, everyone now admitted), whose marital duty it was to take care of last year’s little rodent problem (drawing on the little-known, but very helpful feminist belief that rats are men’s business), what to name the kids (pregnancy gives priority, in another heralded feminist decision).

So, you see — you think you’re just seeing holiday lights when you walk or drive past people’s houses.  But, really, it’s so much more.  We’re living our lives, baring our souls, dramatizing our intimate struggles — and putting them on display every year.

Just ask Sam Gosling.  He’ll back me up, I feel sure.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

7 comments… add one
  • Quite an interesting perspective, Ruth. I think I’ll take a “walk” around the neighborhood and look further than just the lights I see. Speaking of which…Happy holidays to you!

  • merr Link

    It’s true. When you realize what you’re looking at is actually more than you’re looking at, things are always more interesting.

  • Ruth~~
    It would take a whole other reading for my NYC neighbors:) especially the roof-top lighters. Better at Halloween, though.

  • I used to want Christmas lights on the house when I lived in France, but my French husband said no. No one there did that in the Seventies and Eighties. Now I’m back in the States with a new husband, Swedish this time. We have a single star in the window, a vintage one from Sweden. It’s so pretty we leave it up until spring!

  • I’m with you. We have lights strung up on the apple tree in our yard. They never come down. We just plug them in about this time every year. Hmmm… time to start nagging the hubby to plug them in. Because that’s *his job.

  • I just this morning browsed up on your blog and find this article very interesting. Funny thing, I was looking at a neighbor’s patio just yesterday. They’d strung one single line of lights across railing. My immediate thought was “lazy”. Wish you could see my display and tell me what it says about me.

  • My first year in a new place, I’ve found a way to out up lights and a wreath in the window, the best place for people to see them and me and my guests to enjoy them (I’ve always thought lights were about sharing the joy of the holidays, that’s how I feel when I see them, whatever they look like). Very few decorations of any sort in this new neighborhood, sad to say — but my own lights add a bit of sparkle and warmth, I hope.

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