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by Margaret Hartley


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Old Christmas tree lights refuse to burn out

At Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law gave the kids Advent calendars with a piece of chocolate behind each door.

“You don’t have to eat the chocolate every day,” she told them.

Now, every morning before the bus comes, my son pushes out a little square of chocolate. We examine it carefully to figure out what the shape represents (a festive holiday lump? A sock? No, look! It’s a train!) and then he pops it into his mouth.

“Wait!” I say, because we are a humorous family. “Remember what Aunt Bonnie said — you don’t have to eat it!”

“Oh, great” my son answers, grinning. “Now you tell me.” Then he’s off to school.

Advent calendars are one of our December traditions, although we’ve never had the chocolate kind before. Another annual tradition is arguing about the tree.

My husband and I like finding a charming little wild tree growing somewhere out in the woods. My son demands — and his sister backs him up — a “real” tree, which means a field-grown and trimmed Christmas tree that is tall, full and even.

We don’t have any of those in our woods, unless you count the ones that are taller than our house.

So it looks like we’ll be making a donation to the Lion’s Club again this year, heading out to one of their tree lots and bringing home a tree that is acceptable to our son.

Then we can start another tradition: arguing about lights.
My son thinks about a million lights is about right on a tree, and I think our two, 25-year-old strings of multicolored incandescent lights will be just fine.

I know we should switch to LED lights, which are far more energy-efficient. But I can’t bring myself to get rid of perfectly functioning lights and buying replacements. So I’m waiting for them to break.

LED Christmas lights have been around for long enough now that some improvements have been made, particularly to their harshness. There are “soft-white” varieties now that have a warmer glow than the first incarnations. They are also cheaper than they used to be.

The LED lights use about 15 percent of the energy that the incandescent lights use, produce less heat and are supposed to last a lot longer. But in my experience, the traditional strings of lights last forever.

Every year, I test our old lights before putting them on the tree. And every year, something doesn’t work, at least at first. A strand won’t light up, or it will light up and then go out again.

“Hooray! They’re finally broken!” we’ll say, because that would give us reason to do the right thing and buy LED lights. But then I’ll jiggle a bulb or pull a wire straight, and all the lights will go on.

“Maybe next year,” I say, and start stringing them onto the tree.

Our ceiling is low and even when we get a field-grown tree, fully branched out, it has to be a small one. Two strings of lights is more than enough to fill it, and more than enough for a person like me, who dislikes both wasting electricity and turning on too many lights.

My son might be happier if we covered our whole house in festive holiday lights. Instead, we amuse ourselves by looking at other people’s displays, admiring or criticizing as we see fit. We are not fans of blowup decorations, which get bigger every year, and rely on fans and extension cords. (We do like seeing them deflated on the ground in the morning, as if they were shot overnight.)

When my grandmother was little, she had real candles on her Christmas tree, in Germany. The end of every branch had a little clip-on metal candleholder, centered on a small metal tray to catch the dripping wax. I am not sure how long it took to light every candle or to snuff them out again, or how it was that more houses didn’t burn down.

What my grandmother remembered was walking into a room with her sister on Christmas Eve, awestruck at the sight of the tree fully illuminated in candlelight.

We’re not trying that at our house.

We do have some house lights, to appease the boy: one string of those same 25-year-old multicolored lights encircling the living room window.

They shine more into the house than out, which is the way we like it. And since we never got around to taking them down last year, it made our holiday decorating easy: on the first of December, I plugged them in.

It made breakfast in the half-light of early morning a little more festive. And it reminded my son to find his Advent calendar for his first chocolate of the season.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

Have a question or a topic you’d like addressed on Greenpoint? Contact or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter.

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