When I was a little girl, my parents would pack all of us into our winter coats and then into our family Suburban to drive around town and look at Christmas lights. It became a sort of tradition for us. We’d drive up to the benches with the biggest houses, decked in wreaths and bows and hosting little candles in every window; then we’d wind our way down city streets where the Christmas displays were smaller, but often more outlandish and colorful. To us, every lit up house was something magical.
I remember one house in particular that was the most magical of all of them. It was a ranch house that sat just north of historical Preston, Idaho. We’d drive for about 45 minutes from our house to get to it, but you could see it well before you got to it. Not only was it covered in Christmas lights that stretched high into the trees surrounding it, but the house was covered in Disney characters.
Stationed on every patch of ground around that house were wooden characters that had been meticulously cut, painted, and propped up to form scenes straight from movies. Simba, Rafiki, Nala, and Scar stood in one corner of the yard, and Belle and the Beast spun around on a mechanized wheel in the other. The Grinch was on the roof of the house, his wooden arm creaking up and down to crack a whip against his poor counterfeit reindeer, while little wooden puppies traveled along a metal conveyor into the clutches of Horace and Jasper in the front yard. Everywhere you looked, there was a different character doing a different thing — Toy Story, Lilo and Stitch, Cinderella, you name it! I’d roll down my window and lean far out of the car as we moved around the circle drive so I could see every single character. It was the most magical thing I’d ever experienced.
As time passed, we went on Christmas light trips less. I grew older and reached that age where Christmas seems less magical and more meaningless, where the noise and the chaos and the gift giving aren’t what they used to be and the wonder of childhood is replaced by the weight of reality. Last year, like some sad, parallel symbolism, the lights and wooden cutouts came down for good at that house in Preston. The expense of having them up every year for 25 years was too much. Even having not visited for years, hearing the news broke my heart a little. Reality, it seemed, had spared very little of the magic from childhood.
This year, Christmas has been extra noisy and chaotic and hard. I’ve been exhausted every day for the past three weeks, as my job requires a lot of customer interaction and problem solving, most of that being really stressful. I’ve ached to feel as excited about Christmas as I used to feel, and it’s been hard. Last night, after a particularly taxing day at work, my good friend Mariel invited me to go to an Institute class in Preston with her. As we drove down center street in Preston, I slowly relaxed and fell a little in love with the way the trees were wrapped in lights.”There’s this whole street with lights strung on both sides. We should walk down it after class,” Mariel said, turning down a back road as she spoke.Curled up in the passenger seat and reminded of all of the trips up here we used to take as a family, I turned to her to tell her about that old house with the Disney characters, how much it had meant. My attention was stolen by a wooden cutout of Shrek and Fiona that stood in somebody’s lawn.Oh, wow. It’s like that house! I thought with a smile, on the brink of pointing it out to Mariel. Before I could, we came to a stop sign at the street just west of that house. What I saw almost brought tears to my eyes.Stretched out for one block on both sides of the road were the Disney characters I had been so enraptured with as a child. They were scattered so that each yard down the street held one or two groups of characters. New ones had been added since I last saw them, like Frozen and The Princess and the Frog characters. They all moved and creaked or stood still beneath a long line of lights that had been wrapped from telephone pole to tree to telephone pole all the way down the block. It was incredible.
After Institute, Mariel and I bought hot cocoa and walked down both sides of the street and I was struck again by the magic of it all. This small street had come together (I don’t know why or how) to keep a tradition alive. They’d offered their lawns and homes, and I’d imagine they’d done so because they loved that house just as much as I did as a child. It had gone from being the tradition of one to the tradition of many, and I was blown away by the care they had taken to make that street just as magical. While we were walking, a car drove slowly down the road and I could hear children giggling from the rolled down windows. It was the most beautiful sound I’ve heard in awhile.
Last night, I felt an overwhelming amount of love for the people on that street. This neighborhood had revived something I thought I’d never see again, something that brought me so much joy. It was an act of service that humbled me and even now causes tears to fill my eyes. As Mariel and I walked down that street and listened to creaking wood and buzzing lights, I felt an overwhelming contentment with the simplicity of it, with what Christmas means, which is, quite simply, Christlike love. Service. Coming together. Being together.
The magic of Christmas is not found in things, it’s found in people and it’s found in service. Thank you, Preston, for reminding me of that so forcefully last night.