White Lights, Big City

In my latest monthly column in the Hingham Journal, I ruminate on “tasteful” Christmas decorations. While taste is in the eye of the beholder, some appear to have a plank/beam/log (depending on your translation of Matthew 7:5) in their eyes.

IN GOOD FAITH: White lights, big city

By the Rev. Tim Schenck

Hingham is a white light kind of town. At least that’s how it appears as I drive up and down Main Street. No giant blow up Christmas Shreks or snowglobe Frostys or flashing colored lights. Which is fine with me since I’m not really into the whole decorated Christmas Elvis scene.

Of course the contrarian in me wants to string up a few silver and gold-tinseled faux Christmas wreaths with flashing colored lights in the historic district just to see what would happen. Would they cause traffic accidents? Would citizens keel over in horror? Would there be an influx of patients in the emergency room at South Shore Hospital suffering from bad-taste-itis? I’m not sure. Which is why I’m so tempted to experiment.

When we moved into the St. John’s rectory this summer it was made clear that white lights in the windows during December weren’t really optional. During the rectory renovation that preceded our coming to Hingham, outlets were placed under all the windows. When I innocently commented on the plethora of outlets, that’s when I heard about the white lights. This fall we counted out the number of windows facing Main Street and dutifully bought 13 candles. Actually, my wife Bryna did. I suggested actual wax candles. I mean if you’re going for the historic look why not do it right? Fire hazard? Bah! The house is over 200 years old. What’re the odds it would get torched on my watch?

When we lived in Baltimore there was an ordinary looking block of red brick row houses four streets from where we lived. During most of the year it went largely ignored – there’s nothing remarkable about a block of row houses in Baltimore. The city is full of similar streets with their trademark marble steps. But this was 34th Street. So, inspired by the movie miracle, this little block of brick row houses lives up to its name in a dramatic way every December. I’m not sure how or when it started but by the first week in December the whole place is decked out with lights and Christmas displays. And it’s nothing understated. Simplicity and subtlety are not the goals. This display is something altogether different; perhaps even miraculous. It’s become such an institution in Baltimore that the gas and electric Company, in a rare display of Christmas spirit, even waives their fee for the month. And it’s a good thing because after you gaze in wide-wonder, the next question for anyone who’s ever paid a utility bill is “what could their monthly bill possibly be?”

This display is extraordinary. Not tasteful, mind you, but extraordinary. Imagine the gaudiest Christmas display you’ve ever seen. Then magnify it by about 10 and you’re coming close to Christmas on 34th Street in Hampden. Blinking colored lights are strung from house to house forming a canopy across the street, there are several eight-foot-tall plastic figures of everyone from Frosty the Snowman to Santa to Rudolph. There’s usually a Christmas Crab somewhere and one family puts out an impressive display of decorated hubcaps each year. It’s really quite a sight.

Every year on Christmas Day the prologue to John’s gospel is read. Whether or not you’re a regular churchgoer, you’re likely familiar with the poetry of the opening words: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” It goes on to proclaim that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” You see for John, light is a major theme. And there could be no greater amount of wattage than 34th Street in Baltimore on Christmas Eve. But John is talking about a different kind of light. Not one created by human hands, no matter how many bulbs are used. For this is a light that not only shines through darkness but also through power outages. It’s a light that can never be turned off with a switch or become unplugged. It is the light of Christ.

So as you walk or drive through town in the weeks leading up to Christmas, I encourage you to reflect on this greater light of the season. Remember why we put those white lights in the windows of our homes. It’s not just because they look pretty or because they evoke sentimentality for a simpler time. Each one of them points to “the light that shines in the darkness.” And this transcends even the most discerning decorator’s taste.

The Rev. Tim Schenck is Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist. Visit him on the Web at http://www.frtim.com where you can access his blog “Clergy Family Confidential.”


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