My family did not have a lot of money growing up. Being raised by a single mom who drove to Dallas and back every day for work meant not having a lot of the things that some of my friends had. But, for the life of me, I cannot remember a Christmas during my childhood when I didn’t receive most, if not all, of the things I asked for. The funny thing is, all these years later, the memories I have of Christmas time in our house bring with them very few of those gifts. No, my memories of Christmas time during my childhood in Grand Saline aren’t full of toys, games, bikes, and clothes. My Christmas memories are full of love, laughter, and lights!
For the first few years after we moved in with my grandmother, we didn’t have a big Christmas tree. I remember going with my mom and sister to K-Mart in Tyler and buying a 4-foot artificial tree that sat on my grandmother’s antique Duncan Fife table in front of the living room window. We decorated it with all of the ornaments which had been collected over the years–handmade construction paper gingerbread men with our names and the year written in crayon on the back; silver manger scenes with our names and the year engraved on the bottom; and the many special ornaments given as gifts which meant (and still mean) far more than money could ever buy. Besides all of the ornaments, tinsel, and tree-toppers, one thing that we kept adding each year, probably at my insistence, was lights. I loved–okay, I still love–Christmas lights, and by the time we quit using that little 4-foot tree a few years later, the lights we strung around it each year was a kaleidoscopic cacophony of color, flashing, blinking, and twinkling that would make the Las Vegas strip green with envy! Eventually, we started buying bigger trees and opting for uniformity of color and opting out of flashing, blinking, and twinkling. But, the Ghost of Christmas Lights Past made its way from the living room to the front porch and the hedges.
As we retired the old lights from their indoor duties and moved them outdoors, I found new ways each year to drape them over anything that would stand still. I wound them around the posts on the front porch. I strung them through the handrails beside the porch steps. I wove them between the camellia bush and that other big bush that, to this day, I have no idea what it was. Then I would piece together an intricate tapestry of extension cords and plug them together ending with one plugged into the outlet just inside the front door. It was only years later that the inherent danger present in running that many string of light using 4 or 5 extension cords plugged together in one 50-year-old electrical outlet dawned on me. Fortunately, I never burned anything down, and when I plugged them all in, the results were, to me at least, magical. As the sun went down each evening between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, that old house came alive with light and color and the vibrance that is Christmas. But, back then, that was not at all uncommon. Back then, it seemed as if the whole town came alive at Christmas time.
Our house sat on High Street at its intersection with Florence Street. We were just about halfway between the hospital on Waldrip and the old elementary school on Oleander. If you stood at the end of our driveway, you could see about a half mile east, west, or south, and in those days, doing so at Christmas time promised enchanting views. It was easier to count the houses around us that didn’t have lights than those that did. Colored and clear; twinkling and steady; rooftops and treetops and driveways and hedgerows were all aglow. Mr. and Mrs. Darby, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson always lit their homes during Christmas, as did almost all of the others whose names I’ve long since forgotten. In later years, before I graduated high school, the Chamber of Commerce began selling luminaries, which lined the homes and churches on Main Street from Highway 80 all the way to High Street, and beyond. Topping the hill just north of the salt mine on Highway 110 revealed the little downtown area bejeweled in white Christmas lights on top of every building, and what looked like thousands of luminaries stretching for miles out of sight on Main Street. I can still see it in my mind’s eye and it makes me smile.
As the years went on and as people passed away, and as families moved away, most of those lights went out. There were still a few folks who kept up the tradition, and although most of the buildings stood empty, the city did still light the downtown area. But, it just wasn’t the same. It didn’t seem as alive or magical as I remembered growing up. It seemed as though as the town spirit died, the Christmas Spirit died, too. During the years that I lived away from Grand Saline, I would come back from time to time during Christmas and be filled with disappointment at what had been lost. Fortunately, though, I think the tide may have turned. I made a couple of trips into Grand Saline this year at Christmas and, to my pleasant surprise, I saw a lot more of that spirit coming back. There were a number of homes lit up for Christmas–some with simple displays, and others with elaborate and even choreographed productions. As I turned off of Highway 17 onto 110 at the top of that hill, I could see some of that light from my memory. Oh, to be sure, it wasn’t what it used to be, but it was light and it made me smile.
I don’t really know what it is about Christmas lights that makes me so happy. Of all the wonderful traditions that the season brings with it, light seems to be the best metaphor for what it is all about–the Light of the World coming to dwell among us, even in our most desperate state. I hope I never know a time when I don’t see those lights each year during Christmas. I hope that as I grow older, those lights in my memory grow brighter because they remind me of a time and of a place and of people who mean a great deal to me still. They remind me of a time when life was simple and when Christmas time was magical and bright and full of hope–as it always should be.