When I moved to Massachusetts from Colorado, about fifty years ago, I discovered lots of things that were different from what I was used to. Such as calling soda pop “tonic,” no matter what its flavor. Or learning that a “cleanser” was a dry cleaners, or that when asked to throw something “in the barrel” I was to toss it in the wastebasket. Or that after you’d shoveled out a parking space on the snow-filled street, you could put a placeholder in it—a chair or an ironing board, say. This was illegal, technically, but everybody did it.
However, the new thing that surprised and delighted me the most was how people decorated their houses and yards for holidays. Back in Colorado, in those days, a few folks might hang a wreath on their front door, but that was it.
At Halloween I loved seeing the straw scarecrows sitting in rockers on porches, the tall tan corn shocks to either side of the steps, white handkerchief “ghosts” fluttering from bare shrubs, and at Easter, little plastic colored Easter eggs hanging from trees in people’s front yards. I found all of this festive and charming.
But absolutely nothing can surpass Christmas for lavish house-and-yard adornment around here.
Every year, in a neighboring town, the arts council runs a one-night fund-raising event called The Illuminations Trolley Tour. On that night, at the town hall, hot chocolate and coffee and cookies are on offer, and crafty activities for kids, and there is a singing group or two, and about every half hour one of the trolleys comes by and you consult your ticket and see if it is the one on which you have bought a place. The trolleys are those fake-old ones used in Boston for city tours, but on this night the arts council has chartered a bunch of them.
You climb on your trolley, the windows of which require constant wiping down from the condensation of cold outside and warmish inside, and set off. You have a guide, who has a script, and the script, which is either more or less followed by different guides, tells you interesting facts about the town as the intrepid trolley driver navigates narrow, snow-filled streets. This year the guide in our trolley sported a very classy set of antlers with little bells on them, and large brown ears.
So what are we going to see, on our trolley tour in the snow? Fantastical, fabulous, inspired and ingenious Christmas décor on every street!
Over on this side is an entire cowboy Christmas with bucking broncos and little cows, a huge boot, and an American flag. Rolling slowly down the street we pass by a two-house display; the side-by-side houses, owned by one family, are joined by a driveway. Santa and a team of reindeer fly right over the driveway on their way to the adjoining house.
Through the blurry trolley windows we notice a family out on their front porch, waving amid the blaze of lights. Or—wait—is that Santa real? A person in a Santa suit? He’s waving. Hard to tell. Our trolley driver clangs his bell and our guide leads us in a chorus of “Ooooo!” and “Ahhhh!”
I like this one. The homeowner has opted for a subtle combination of only green and blue lights. The house glows mysteriously in the night.
The crèche is the center of many displays, though this representation of the meaning of Christmas might well be surrounded by a crowd of elves or giant candy canes or possibly Snoopy or toy soldiers. Mickey Mouse has been known to be present at the crib. There are huge stars and curtains and swags of colored lights, houses with every architectural feature limned in white lights, angels, snowflakes projected onto the sides of houses, and a Christmas train laden with gifts.
Our guide explains how many of the crèches are missing the Baby Jesus tonight. He will not appear in the crib until Christmas Eve. Figures in some of the crèches have been hand-carved over the years by the home-owner, and others, plastic, come from Wal-Mart.
But it doesn’t matter. All of this joyful and reverential outpouring of creative attention is a marker of this holy season. The decorators, many of them, immigrated here from the Azores Islands off Portugal, or, perhaps earlier, from Italy. Now they own a house here in America, and their kids and grandkids need to be shown the traditional ways, so that they will keep them up. Their homes are canvasses which represent their beliefs and artistic choices. We trolley-travelers give over, for one night, to child-like delight in their creative visions.
Ooooo! Ahhhh! Merry Christmas!