I GREW up in urban New Jersey, in the shadow of New York City, which put a decidedly concrete cast on the holidays, particularly Christmas. Outside, there were no tree-lined hillsides covered in snow. Inside, there were no roaring fireplaces spreading Christmas warmth and cheer. To us, these images were as unnatural as Technicolor movie scenes.
However, we weren't without picturesque family traditions. It all would begin the Friday evening after Thanksgiving. We would anxiously pile into the family car for a ride to see the Christmas lights that had been suspended overnight from telephone pole to telephone pole all along Bergenline Avenue. This four-mile main street wove through four towns and supported dozens of major department stores, as well as hundreds of delicatessens, butcher shops, bakeries, supermarkets, and innumerable small shops and businesses.
On this particular night of the year, a ride down the avenue would take nearly an hour. Throughout the journey, we would comment on the quality of the new season's decorations, comparing and contrasting them to past years.
Even though each town's lights were distinctive, the aesthetic focal point of the county always was midway down the avenue in the bull's-eye of its commercial hub. Here, mounds of garland and tinsel and thousands of red and green lights served as a backdrop for lavishly wrought store windows that displayed their dazzling tableaus of Christmas treasures. All this was heightened by the delightful cacophony of festive chimes, spirited carols, and vigorously clanging bells. It was a perfect counterpoint for the rumblings of high-finned autos, overloaded buses, and gear-grinding trucks.
Later that night, invigorated by the incipient Christmas season, we would ransack an obscure closet in our guest room for our personal stash of holiday decorations. Within a few hours, our apartment was transformed with aluminum laurels, plastic candles, paper bells, varnished pine-cone wreaths, and bright red and amber light bulbs that flickered behind the petrified logs of the plaster Victorian fireplace in the living room.
Once the rooms of our dwelling were in order, my mother would turn her attention to the three windows that faced the street. These were of particular importance to her, because they provided an opportunity to proclaim our seasonal cheer to the neighborhood.
The fact that most drivers coming home from double shifts or second jobs were too beleaguered to notice our emblems of Christmas gaiety was unimportant to my mother. Undaunted, she would buy aerosol cans of foam to simulate a blizzard-spattered windowpane, string up yards of bubble lights around the frame, and hang glow-in-the-dark icicles in asymmetrical patterns across the glass.
After everything had been unpacked and placed, a prime event took place: hanging the centerpiece, our family's ultimate decorative statement, in the middle window. The object, brought out from the recesses of the Christmas closet, carried with it an aura of respect worthy only of a sacred family artifact.
And once the all-important Christmas tree had been attended to, my father, with an almost ceremonial flourish, would produce a carton as big as a pizza box but twice as thick. Inside lay the main item, the final touch, the climax to our decorative endeavor. Gingerly, my mother would unwrap the crumpled mound of tissue paper that protected a larger-than-life, multicolored, three-dimensional plastic Santa face.
Next to the tree ornaments, which seemed to be spun from material that would dissolve at a touch, this Santa was the most fragile and revered of adornments. Years of use were evidenced by the amount of dried cellophane tape that held its torn jowls together, but when Santa was hung and plugged into his two-second blinker socket, we knew the season had begun in earnest.
For many years, during the six weeks that denoted the Christmas season, I would luxuriously sprawl out on the big green living-room sofa, dreamily listening to my brother practice a Chopin nocturne on the piano with the pulsating rhythms of a permanently puffed and rosy Santa face winking its 100-watt joviality for all the neighbors to see.