Last weekend, Jason and I were driving back to our home in Queens from a visit to my family on Long Island, and I stared out the passenger window into the night. Along the side of the highway, every now and then there was a glimpse of a few houses, a block, a neighborhood. And each time, there was a smattering of Christmas lights, everything from a candle in each window to white icicles hanging off a roof to a multicolored, full-house-and-yard bonanza. Above it all was a low, full moon, not competing, but complementing the display. And then as we neared home and Jason exited off the LIE and up the ramp to Greenpoint Avenue, there it was – the city skyline, appearing in full ahead of us as the exit ramp crested the hill. In the mile or two before the exit, the city offers hints and glimpses around certain turns, but this is the moment it comes into full view, and inevitably, one of us will say fondly, "Hello, City." The Empire State Building and the Crysler Building glowed white against the night, the UN building gleamed along the waterfront, the Citibank building in Long Island City tried to pretend it was part of it all, and numerous other unknown buildings contributed to the tableau. It was magical.
Each year, my apartment building's super decorates our building, and the sister building next door, for Christmas. In the lobby, it’s a bit overwhelming. There is (and this is just from memory): a Christmas tree decked in lights and ornaments, a full manger scene beneath the tree, Christmas music playing from somewhere behind the tree, a menorah, a snowman parachuting down from the ceiling, two knee-high elves, stockings hanging from the fake fireplace, and other items I can’t remember. In the courtyard between the two buildings is a giant, blow-up plastic “snowglobe” with a snowman inside, light-up candy canes, and lit up snowflakes in the trees. It’s all a bit much, although it's done with fun and even some elegance. But the buildings themselves – more magic. Each building is six floors, divided into two halves with a break in between. The super lines each building in a line of white lights, so they’re four peaks against the sky – you can see it from all the way down on Queens Boulevard, a block and a half away. (Jason and I often joke that you can probably see it from space.) Along the railing in front of each building, a line of blue lights. And over each door, a wreath. Each night as I get off the 7 train, come down the stairs, and reach the street, I look down my block and I see it glowing against the black sky, and it feels like it’s beckoning me home.
Perhaps what makes me so happy about the lights is the sheer neighborliness of it. No one says you have to put up lights, and there’s no monetary gain in it (in fact, it costs a lot to put up and maintain these displays, right? I’m a nice Jewish girl, what do I know?). I have no idea where or when the tradition started, but it doesn’t seem to have much basis in religion or Christ’s birth. It’s a lot of work to put up lights on a house (not to mention a six-story building), and it feels like it’s done out of a pure impulse – to make something a bit prettier than it was before, to give something back to your visitors and neighbors, and to bring joy and silliness and even grace into this season when it gets colder and darker earlier. As an apartment-dweller and a Jew, I don't put up lights. As a kid, we put our electric menorah in the window and that was about it. Now that my mom has married into a Christmas-celebrating family, I help put up the tree and decorate the house. In fact, wrapping garland and white lights around the bannister has been my personal job for years. And I love that after all these years of the lights making me happy, I get to contribute to it a bit as well.
Happy (first night of) Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, happy holidays, and my love and good thoughts and wishes to all of you for a very happy, healthy, joyous new year.