Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holiday Symbolism in the Suburbs

As a writer, I’m obligated to seek and find symbolism in the world at large. Blame my 10th grade English teacher. Blame Hawthorne’s, “The Scarlet Letter.” Or blame me for taking the obligation to heart in the first place. But symbolism is out there for those who seek it.

This time of year (December/holidays) is ripe for finding symbolism, sort of like fishing right after they stock the lake. Symbolism lurks everywhere, no matter if you see the world through rose-tinted glasses, or if, like me, you’re torn between cynicism and sentimentality at the holidays. For instance, screaming children collapsing on the floor of Toys ‘R’ Us at the feet of their incredulous parents always has me singing, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” The parents don’t like that at all. No humor there. I don’t recommend you try that.

Yesterday, driving home in the too-early winter darkness after battling the parking and shopping at the local mall, I was feeling particularly cynical—$200 at Crate and Barrel will do that to you. I weaved my way through my neighborhood streets, passing the nauseating holiday lights and decorations in my blindingly lit suburb. I passed by “the house”—the one that every Orange County neighborhood seems to have. The one that has a dozen inflatable winter holiday characters and the Edison-draining light show.

However, this night, something must have come unplugged, because the five foot tall Frosty, Santa, Rudolph, and Mrs. Claus were all deflated and slumped over on the lawn, like the scene of some North Pole drive-by shooting.

There it was—symbolism in my own neighborhood. The very creatures dragged out from the garage rafters to herald in the holiday seemed to lack any enthusiasm for their performance, and instead had taken their final bow. Hell with the holidays. I’m out. Ka-thump.

For the first time ever, I slowed to enjoy the scene. The glowing light from the house’s eaves now looked more like a police spotlight, shining on the scene of a crime than like the holiday festivity they hoped to evoke. I laughed and laughed like a crazy person, as though I was the culprit who shot up the lawn creatures, frankly wondering why I hadn’t thought to do that very thing each year prior. It was brilliant and horrible all at once. My sentimentality and cynicism had found a comfortable symbol, right on my neighbor’s lawn.

After wiping away my evil tears, I came home to my own house, my lighted tree seen through the living room window, the roof lights still tucked away in the garage waiting for me to keep my promise to the kids. And then I felt bad. Those lawn characters were haunting me like Scrooge’s ghosts. Why had I laughed? Was it really that funny? Or was I just feeling joy at the expense of my neighbor, secretly feeling guilty over my own negligence about my own decorations. Theirs had fallen, mine hadn’t yet even been displayed.

Then I thought about my kids. My neighbor’s kids were proud of their house, and mine were still wondering if I’d come through on my promise. Even droopy lawn people were better than no people and no lights in the minds of my kids.

You see, the kids haven’t yet developed that cynicism. Their symbolism is just about what’s good and what’s beautiful, not what’s wrong with the world. And, while I admit a have a certain desire to see my own kids develop a sense of cynicism (albeit just enough to make them question what’s right and wrong), I do not wish to see them lose their hopefulness, their joy, or their sentimentality.

So, now I’m off to the garage to haul out the ladder, drag out the lights, and hang them around the eaves of my own roof. The sentimentality of the season has won out again. I noticed today that my neighbor’s North Pole crime scene has been restored—Frosty and Santa and friends now smile and stand erect for all to see. Joy to the world.

And while this little Christmas lesson has warmed my begrudgingly sentimental heart like a hot toddy in a stowed-away lunch thermos, I can’t help but wonder—how can I unplug those damn inflatables without anyone noticing?

© 2007, Herb Williams-Dalgart