Originally published in The Globe and Mail, December 18, 1998
It’s been more than a decade since I wrote this piece, and more than a year since Bumpy passed away. I’m no longer in a little flat but in small Toronto bungalow that I share with my sister. And this year, in the spirit of Bumpy, our hedge, shrubs and porch glow with candied-fruit-coloured lights. We miss you, Charlie Gillis!
“You’ve got to see this house,” said the cab driver to my sister, Tina. She was home in Moncton for a Christmas visit, and on her way downtown to meet friends for a holiday drink.
“It’s not really on the way, so I’ll turn off the meter, but you’ve got to see it,” he said, heading down Elmwood Drive to a house decked out in hundreds of lights, complete with plastic snowmen, soldiers, candy canes and a full Nativity scene. Well, actually, an overfull Nativity scene — there were six wise men rather than the usual three. As they passed the house, the driver rolled down his window so they could hear the Christmas carols being piped into the yard.
Tina just laughed — and didn’t bother to tell the driver he’d just taken her past our grandparents’ house.
Yes, there are six wise men — they were on sale, and my grandfather has never been one to pass up a deal. This year, though, I’ve been told he’s split them into two groups, one set for the front and one set for the side of his corner-lot house. There are plastic camels and sheep nestled beside the plastic snowmen, all of them clustered around a plastic Virgin Mary, Baby Jesus, Joseph and at least one little shepherd boy. While there aren’t any Roman centurions, there are plenty of (plastic) tin soldiers, just slightly shorter than the giant (plastic) candy canes next to them. And of course, there’s Santa and the reindeer, Rudolph complete with red nose leading the way as they shoot into the air. (Actually, there are two Santas — one airborne and one on the ground, the result of another sale, I think.)
My grandmother used to do her best to rein my grandfather in, counselling moderation and style over sheer wattage and excess. It was a losing battle. In recent years, as her health declined and she died, my grandfather was left to make the decorating decisions on his own, and his electricity-worshipping impulses reasserted themselves.
At 80, he doesn’t climb the trees to string his own lights any more — he contracts that job out to whichever able-bodied helpers he can find. But while others may help him turn his vision into reality, it’s still his vision — his very own thousand points of light.
I’ll admit it; it used to embarrass me — I mean, jeez, the house has become a stop on the cab-drivers’ tour of Moncton. And while I’m no Martha Stewart, it all seemed just a little (okay, a lot) tacky. There were no handmade wreaths, no understated white lights, no holly carefully woven along handrails. It was bright and colourful and artificial — a celebration of my grandfather’s purchasing power and predilection for plastic.
Then, about five years ago, something in me changed. Maybe it was because I hadn’t made it home for Christmas for a couple of years. When I finally did, the first thing I wanted to do was see my grandfather’s lights, in all their brilliant, candy-coloured glory. Embarrassment gave way to pure childish delight, and I started to understand my grandfather’s obsession. It isn’t about subtle emotions or sophisticated artistic sentiments. It’s an eye-popping hallelujah, a belly-laughing “ho-ho-ho” to the holiday season.
I won’t be in Moncton this year — my parents are making the trip to Toronto instead. Since I live in a flat in a house, I don’t really have the space for a full Christmas display. But for the first time, I’m investing in my own set of metre-high, plastic Christmas candles to set up outside my door, and I’ve been eyeing the door frame for its lighting potential.
On Christmas Eve, when the rest of my extended family is gathered at my grandfather’s in Moncton for the traditional get-together, here in Toronto, my parents and siblings and I will take a moment to look to the east. We won’t be looking for a star. Nope, we’ll be hoping to catch a glimpse of the distant glow of my grandfather’s display blinking just over the horizon.