Not a White-Lights Person
By Michael Kelly
This column was published in the Washington Post on Dec. 12, 2001. The Post reran it on April 5, 2003, opposite an editorial about Kelly's death.
I am Catholic and my wife is Jewish, so in our house we celebrate both Hanukah and Christmas, which our sons, Tom and Jack, regard as an excellent thing. People sometimes ask me if it is hard to raise children in respect and love for two great faiths that have a slight doctrinal disagreement between them, and I say: Not if you give them presents every day for eight days of Hanukah and for Christmas. The more Gods, the merrier is Tom and Jack's strong belief.
Like other parents, we try not to let the materialism get out of hand, and to keep the focus on the sacred. This year, on the first day of Hanukah, we gave Tom, 5, a realistic, detachable, revolving red police cruiser roof light, so that he may follow the ancient Jewish holy practice of impersonating a state trooper. He received the gift with appropriate reverence. We gave Jack, 2, some Silly Putty. He received the gift in his hair, and now he is in a fine shape to play the role in the Christmas pageant of the Wondering Child With a Bald Spot.
Actually, Jack has not been cast in a pageant. Tom has, though. He has a walk-on in the pageant staged by our local Unitarian church. There was a rehearsal the other Sunday after the service, which featured the lighting of a menorah (during which apologies were offered to anyone who might take offense at a lighting before sundown), followed by the traditional singing of the great Christian hymn "Oh, Mitten Tree" (during which the faithful paraded around a tree that was decked, in fact, with mittens). A Unitarian pageant turns out to be different from a Roman Catholic one. In Tom's pageant, Jesus Christ is celebrated as "a very special person" and "a great rabbi" and an all-around asset to the community. The Son-of-God debate, which has proved so regrettably contentious over the years, is not mentioned.
No doubt this is all to the good. There is too much disputation around Christmas anyway. One growing issue is the white vs. colored lights debate. Like all matters of taste, this is also a matter of class. White lights are high-class; colored lights are somewhat less so.
White lights make the statement that one is a refined sort who appreciates that less is more and who celebrates Christmas (and life in general) in such a fashion that one would not be absolutely mortified if Martha Stewart dropped by unexpectedly for tea. Colored lights make the statement that one is the sort of person who believes that Christmas is not Christmas without an electric sled and reindeer on the lawn, an electric Santa on the roof, an electric Frosty by the front gate and an electric Very Special Person in a manger on the porch.
Most of the houses in my neighborhood are white-light houses, and I have to admit they are lovely, but I was raised in a colored-light family, and I am raising Tom and Jack to be colored-light men too. They do not take a lot of convincing on this. Boys are naturally colored-lighters.
We got up the first three strings of our lights the weekend before last, and another two last weekend, at which time we threw away the rotted Halloween pumpkin. I might have gotten more lights up by now except that the remaining three strings are not working. To fix them you have to go through and find the burned-out bulb and replace it, and there are a lot of bulbs in a string, and the whole enterprise is one of those things that lead Daddy to point out that this is really the sort of job Mommy does better, and Mommy claims that she doesn't know how to do it because she wasn't raised in a colored-light family. This is a cop-out, and unworthy of her.
Still, I am confident we will get all the lights up by New Year's, and all down by Easter. In my family, it was considered poor form to leave the lights up past Easter; it suggested shiftlessness. One elderly woman in our neighborhood did leave her lights up, and also her tree, and her electric Santa, all year around. But she was considered a special case and no one held it against her. This may have been because everyone back then was a colored-light person. Colored-lighters are more relaxed about this sort of thing than white-lighters.
But that was judgmental, wasn't it? I should not be judgmental. I learned that from the Unitarians. Colored-lighters aren't any better than white-lighters; we are all special persons. Very.