Some random thoughts on bad Christmas lights

Neither Christianity or consumerism is my religion, so I don’t personally do much for Christmas, but a well-done set of decorations can be art the same way that architecture can be art. Too many of you have failed, though, and created bad art, art that fails in its purpose while assaulting the passerby’s eyes (and occasionally ears, despicably).

My favorite kind of Christmas decoration is the tree visible through the front window, because it’s easy to do tastefully and it projects sincerity – “we don’t mind if you see this, but we’re decorating for ourselves because we love Christmas.” The guy with a tree set up in his enclosed front porch, though, is pushing it.

Color is important. White lights and multicolored lights both have decades of nostalgia behind them. Other colors can work, but you have to be careful. For example, the family whose Christmas tree has all green lights had a good idea – green is a seasonal color, and the color of new life, and all that – but the combination of green lights and Day-Glo yellow porch light makes their house look like the set of a bad made-for-TV horror movie.

Also, don’t do all red lights; that symbolism is taken. And don’t do all blue lights unless your religion is in fact power-worship, in which case feel free to let the rest of us know to avoid you. And don’t just leave your purple Halloween lights up and expect them to magically change into Christmas lights.

(Also, why are Halloween lights a thing? And Valentine’s Day lights? If that trend continues, we’ll see Independence Day lights, the Christmas decoration season will effectively be twelve months long, and consumerism will reign for a thousand years. But that’s a gripe for another day – maybe in February, when I start seeing goddamned Valentine’s lights again.)

The candle-in-each-window thing is probably my second favorite type of Christmas decoration. Not much can be done in the way of artistry, but it’s almost automatically tasteful… or it was until some miscreant invented “flickering” electric candles. I guess they’re supposed to simulate the flickering light of a windblown real candle, but that’s a symbol of trouble – candles are windblown when someone barges in unexpectedly, or when you’re so bereft of shelter that there’s a constant draft. Also, the cheaper electric candles don’t so much flicker as blink erratically, and blinking lights do not inspire serenity. Blinking strings of lights are bad enough, but blinking single lights are warning signals.

Be careful with color here, too – blinking orange lights are doubly a warning signal.

And about light level, if you’re doing a lot of lights: you want it bright enough to be seen from a passing car, not bright enough to read a newspaper by or confuse nearby aircraft.

When it comes to Christmas lights, I’m a traditionalist, in case you hadn’t already guessed that. I view innovations in Christmas decoration with skepticism until I see them in action and usually for years afterward. Icicle lights, for instance – I’ve seen them done well now, and it only took a couple of decades. Mesh lighting seems very easy to screw up – I’ve seen people guess spectacularly badly at what size of mesh would cover a shrub, and I’ve seen other people just give up and hang mesh off the side of their house like the goddamned Christmas fisherman – but when done well, it can rival the best deployment of rope lights. I’m still not fond of wireframe reindeer, but I’ve seen them used with at least some thought as to how they look with the rest of the house and yard, so I’ll concede that some other people who like them might not be complete idiots.

Light projectors, though… just don’t. I’ve seen them done with varying degrees of skill – a couple of years ago, one exceptionally bad example half-missed its target and lit up a house on the other side of an intersection – but they’re still conspicuously lazy, and if you don’t respect your art, why should I? They’re probably my second least favorite kind of decoration, behind glowing inflatable lawn decorations – and one of the few good things about Maine winter is that it’s harsh enough to mostly limit that whirring scourge to warmer seasons.


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