Lileks: Clark Griswold can only dream of Christmas lights like these

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2012 - 11:16 PM

I've been hanging out at the malls this week, looking for something new to set this season apart from its predecessors.

The signage slogans seem the same -- just random collections of pre-approved words. Festive the Jolly! Holiday the Merry! Rudolph Yourself a Holly Noel Log! Better, I suppose, than blunt frank commands:

Purchase knitted garments for other people's torsos while thinking about the flavor of peppermint!

Strive to equate this example of late December communal gatherings with childhood recollections!

Honest, but they'd miss the point. This is a good time, for all its stresses and obligations. We have a purpose and we have a goal. We're in this together. Let us all join hands and sing that Whoville song, even though no one knows the lyrics.

OK, done with the kumbaya? Good.

Now the gripe about what's new: less of the old-style Christmas lights. Every year there are fewer incandescent bulbs for sale; every year the shelf space accorded to LEDs expands. That would be great, except they're more expensive, require additional cash, are as subtle as a knitting needle in the eyeball, and cost a lot. (They're also pricey.)

Ah, you say, but in the long run, when you factor in reduced energy costs and substantially decreased replacement costs, the comparative advantage ...

Me no care. How much now? Too much. Me buy old one.

I get the point: I'm cheap. Lowbrow. You buy a few boxes of the old style, and you might as well shout, YES, I CAN NAME AT LEAST ONE NASCAR DRIVER. GO ON. THAT'S WHAT YOU'RE THINKING. Might as well sell them at a store that has wine in a box and a DVD-rental kiosk with nothing but movies about bachelors and aliens.

So I stocked up on old-style strands while I could. Got them out to discover they'd spent the last year weaving themselves into a hideous braid that's oh-so-easy to disentangle. Right behind "untangling cold spaghetti while wearing oven mitts" easy. If ever a terrorist wanted to foil the bomb-disposal squad, they wouldn't bother with the old red-wire/green-wire leads to the detonator -- just make it so someone has to untangle a 300-bulb strand to defuse the bomb. It's not that he'd run out of time; he'd forget all about the objective, walk away, find a hammer, come back and smash all the bulbs to pieces.

Anyway. I put up the lights a few days ago, and it went as usual. Remove the UL tag, snip off the packet of spare bulbs that would sit in the junk drawer for the next seven years, and throw away the instructions, unread. Pretty sure they said something like "Do not attach directly to transformer on nearby power pole" or "Choking hazard" in case you were thinking of sprinkling them in the kid's porridge, or "Made in a facility that processed nuts," just to be safe.

Tested the strands: They worked. Spread them over some bushes in an attractive pattern. Plugged them in. They blink! And by "blink" I mean that when I walk outside and note that one strand has gone dark after less than a week of use, I jiggle the strand and it comes back on. Technically, that's blinking.

Once they did more than blink. Once upon a time, incandescent bulbs came with little control boxes that set the lights dancing in a variety of patterns with odd names. Steady Burning, which sounds like something you'd call your urologist about. Steady Twinkle, which sounds like a level-headed shopgirl in a Dickens story. Constant Waves was one of my favorites, and if I ever write a novel about 17th-century New England, Constant Waves will be the faithful wife who is tempted by the rakish Flashing Random.

The effect was glorious. The new-fallen snow coated the bushes with an impasto of celestial frosting; the lights beneath danced and twinkled. It was a magical sight, and while I'm sure some LED sets have the twinkle-kits, they weren't available at the big-box store -- and they probably required a motherboard that would short out and cost $256 to replace.

So nothing will twinkle this year, no lights will flit; that'll wait until I shed the inhibition that keeps from hitting the 401(k) for blinking LEDs.

Don't bother writing in to tell me LED costs will come down when more people buy them. I get that. You first.

Thanks in advance, and jolly the merry.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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