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Christmas is the season of lights


The street lit up with a magical glow. That’s what I remember most, brown paper lunch bags turned into beacons of light as far as my eyes could see.

My memories of living in Maryland are admittedly hazy. We moved when I was 5. But I remember the luminaries vividly, those glowing paper bags of light that lined the street and driveways on Christmas Eve.

As much as “Silent Night” and Santa Claus, Christmas has always been about the lights to me – those luminaries, “candles” in the windows, lights on the tree and decorating houses, apartment balconies and department store windows.

There is something calming, grounding, hopeful about the lights this time of year – beyond whatever symbolism assigned them by religion. The candles of a menorah have a similar effect for me. The flames' flicker — like the radiating glow of a string of little bulbs, offers something no gift, song or sugar cookie can. It creates an atmosphere for thought or to escape thinking completely, if you wish. It counters the early darkness of the winter’s day. It offers comfort, whether alone or in the company of friends and family.

That Christmas comes at the end of the calendar allows for extra reflection. Whether the year coming to an end has been dominated by loss and difficulty or great joy, I always find myself drawn to the lights. I write cards by the tree. I drive around neighborhoods just to see the brilliant decorations on houses.

My parents did that for me and my sister when we were little. Our holidays were dominated by long car rides to my grandparents’ house and, for Christmas, my father often detoured to a nearby street where neighbors tried to outdo each other with decorations. It was undeniably the highlight of a ride to Long Island that often seemed as if it would never end.

When I was a kid, there was no way to watch a movie in the backseat. Reading in the car made me nauseous, so I spent hours looking out the window, just waiting to be on a highway with an adjacent neighborhood or surrounded by apartment buildings. I thank the people whose trees lit up windows or who hung lights on their balconies. They kept me going. They are forever part of my mental Christmas memory movie reel. There are some houses along the Grand Central Parkway that I still look forward to each year. These homes are as much a part of my tradition as the traffic, meals, family and friends that make up my lifetime of Christmases.

In 44 years, I have spent every Christmas but three driving to Long Island – from Maryland, Pennsylvania or New Jersey. Each of those three times, I was home alone. Twice, I had a stomach virus. The other, a snowstorm stranded me at my new house with my then-fiancé already on Long Island with his parents. Each time, I was buoyed by the glowing Christmas tree and consoled myself knowing that at least I didn’t have to face the thousands of brake lights – the only unwelcome incandescence of the season.

The lights those days were my welcome company in a relationship that began with the luminaries from my childhood. Around 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, the street and cul-de-sacs of our Maryland neighborhood lit up. It was the perfect guiding path for Santa and his sleigh and remains my untarnished, magical Christmas memory. The lights each year allow me to believe in that magic again, if only for a moment. Glowing brown paper bags as far as the eye could see.