GUESTWORDS: Tangled Up in Lights

By Claudine M. Jalajas

    Every year I ask my husband to get the Christmas decorations. He usually rubs his chin, sighs, and asks, “Now?” After an entire year of moving things in and out of the garage, the Christmas boxes have been shuffled and stacked and are usually in the farthest, most difficult areas to reach.
    Putting the lights on the Christmas tree is a rite of passage. Growing up, my older brother, Daniel, had the honors. Each year we’d drag out the boxes, one containing the bristly fake Christmas tree and a second box with lights, homemade and store-bought ornaments, thinning aluminum foil garland, and a few leftover cans of spray-on snow. Daniel would put the tree up and then begin the lighting procedures. First test the lights — nothing quite as annoying as discovering the lights on the tree don’t work. We would sit on the living room floor tightening and replacing individual bulbs until the strand finally lit up. I would grow tired of waiting for the lights to be done and whine, “Can we put the ornaments on now?” The answer was always no. Everyone knows you put the lights on first.
    Each year saw a new plan of action. One year Daniel did a zigzag pattern from the top of the tree down. Some years we blinked, some years we didn’t. We debated the merits of going all the way around the tree or just doing its face. Each year I sat with my chin in my hand waiting for Daniel to finish. No matter how I hung the ornaments, the garland, or tinsel, the comments were always the same: “The lights are so pretty.”
    Once Daniel moved out of the house, the torch passed to me. Each year I scolded my younger brothers, “We need to check them. No, everyone knows that you put the lights on first.” Since that time I have maintained my status as lighting director, even in my own home. My husband seems content with his role as star-topper and box-schlepper.
    As I open the boxes, my children anxiously ask if they can decorate. I remind them the lights go first. Thankfully lights are not as delicate these days so the testing is a fairly quick step. But the kids get bored waiting for me to put the lights on, as I stop every so often to stand back and make sure I’ve covered each inch of the tree in a uniform manner. They leave the living room to go on to other things.
    This year we have a tremendous number of lights on our tree. I prefer small, nonblinking white lights. I decided to buy new ones for the tree and blanketed it in white. When I stood back to admire my work, my eldest son, Luc, whimpered, “But I like rainbow colors. . . .” I feel strongly that when it comes to decorating I know what I’m doing — but I couldn’t stand to see him looking so disappointed. First Santa, now this. So I threw a few more sets of lights, rainbow-colored, on top of the white ones.
    As I approached the end of my last strand of lights the other night, my 3-year-old daughter, Annabelle, came up and leaned on my legs. She looked up at me and then silently pointed at the tree in a melancholy way. I bent down on one knee and asked, “What’s wrong?” She didn’t answer. I asked, “Do you want to help me finish the lights?” She smiled and nodded enthusiastically. I handed her the last bit of the last strand. She pulled it very gently across the bottom of the tree, making sure that it fell on each branch perfectly. When she finished she jumped up and down with a smile that made even her nose crinkle. I said, “You did a beautiful job,” and she leaned in, pushing her soft cheek gently into mine.
    When I announced that the lights were done the boys ran into the room and tore into the ornament boxes like they were gifts. They smiled and asked me about the dated ones, the ones with their pictures in it, and remarked upon how much they’ve all changed in their short little lives. I resisted the urge to make sure that the tree was ornamentally balanced and let them land where they may. After all, it’s not the ornaments that make a tree — everyone knows it’s all about the lights.
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    Claudine M. Jalajas is a technical writer who lives in Rocky Point. She earned an M.F.A. in writing at Southampton College and has had her work published in Proteus and The Southampton Review.