Just so we're clear: If you take the lights down before I do, you're a holiday kill-joy. If you take them down later, you're lazy.

Yes, it's that sad time in the bleak midwinter when the neighborhoods go dark, one house at a time, as people realize a fortnight has passed since they left the tree on the boulevard like a mob hit dumped from a car.

Yet the lights blaze away. What signs do we give when we keep them on?

Middle of January: Can't let go of the joys of the season, the comforting glow of the lights blaring away in the black sepulchre of the vast empty night; also shiftless.

End of January: Spouse still buys the excuse that it'll help the pizza delivery guy find us.

Middle of February: In Mexico; burglars, take a number and get in line.

March: Police account includes the phrase "mummified remains."

The Vatican keeps them up until Feb. 2, but my house is not St. Peter's or there would be 100,000 faithful on the front lawn when I went out to get the paper in the morning.

So I say the middle of January. On the 15th I yanked the cord, looking up and down the block to note that I wasn't the first, but not the last. The sun slid down with that strange, quick, guilty exit it has in the winter, like a parent leaving a recital after his kid has played, and all was black.

Except that the next morning the lights were on. I checked the switchbox: on. I turned it off and thought no more of it, until I passed the front windows later and saw that you could read fine print on a contract from 20 feet away by the glare outside the house. Turned them off again. Asked my wife: Did you turn the lights back on?

She was deep in work e-mail, but finally gave me a look as if I'd asked if she had any opinion on ending the Mali crisis diplomatically. What? No. Why? No reason.

The third night I kept them on. They were still burning in the a.m. Conclusion: electrical gremlins for the power company; neighbors who don't want to look like the last ones to go dark; wife secretly turning them on again because she thinks it's too soon to go dark.

Not saying which I believe, but I'm tempted to turn them off, then hide in the bushes, catch her in the act, then jump up and shout AH-HA! So you DO have an opinion on Mali!

A husband lives for moments like that.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858