A brief window into other people's worlds

Normally, I'm the soul of discretion, a respecter of privacy. But this time of year, during my brisk nightly walks around the neighborhood, I gaze straight at the windows of homes on my route.

After all, what I see seems intended for me: flags mounted on panes to face outward, wreaths made from greenery or silk, creche scenes nestled in cotton batting, candles of all stripes, sparkling green or silver garlands, and giant snowflakes snipped from shiny paper. These winsome windows are often bordered by tiny lights that cry, "Look at me!"

And although Christmas-tree placement in these windows is often a function of floor plan, surely it's also meant to catch the eyes of passersby.

As I stride along the sidewalk, I don't gape far into these festooned living-room windows, but rather at the tableaus arranged just behind them.

Save for the telltale shake of a splayed newspaper in the distant background, I seldom see these homes' inhabitants, nor do I wish to.

I prefer to imagine their lives vaguely, on the basis of their decorating druthers: solemn statues standing behind one pane, faux songbirds and snowmen adorning another, candy canes and jaunty reindeer bedecking a third. Despite such dizzying variety, these display artists share one trait in common: an expansive generosity, as they create seasonal scenery for insiders and outsiders alike.

My favorite scene glows from the picture window of a widow I know. On a large table flush with her sill, she has arranged, on a landscape of sparkling gauze, a village of little ceramic homes, each illuminated from within. Her idealized townscape evokes a sense of community I hope she feels, year-round, in our real-life town.

Returning from my walk, I trudge up my own driveway. My husband has accented our home's outlines with lights, but our living room is oriented away from the street, so our decorations don't show through our kitchen's front window. Still, I regard it as a passing walker might. The quality of light suggests a cozy nook, a good book, a mug of something hot and spiced.

Such imaginings are sweet cheating, since I know well the comforts awaiting me within. (Drawing closer, I resolve to straighten the photos on the refrigerator.)

Then I notice the backlit silhouettes of our two cats, staring into the blackness from the window ledge. One is round, sedate, sleek, the other solid and squat, with long, soft fur blurring her edges. They're the real reason this particular sash remains unadorned. It's their favorite perch, and bells and bows would only tempt them toward mischief.

In the same instant, they spy me and leap from their posts to dash toward the door. I decide they're all the window-dressing a holiday sightseer could wish for, especially when they go from stock-still to animated in the space of a second.

Come morning, I sit near that same kitchen window, glancing up as neighbors amble past on their morning rounds. Sometimes I'll wave and garner a startled smile, then a wave in reply. But occasionally these walkers look abashed. Perhaps I've disturbed their sense of decorum. Maybe I've interrupted their reveries. Although I'm on the inside now, I'm the spectator here, too, inviting those I see to breach this barrier of half-fogged glass and connect with me, however briefly.

Like the windows I eye on my evening walks, these walkers embody for me the charming paradox of private lives temporarily placed on public display.

'Window of opportunity" has always struck me as a mixed metaphor, using as it does a visual concept - an aperture - to circumscribe a potentially fruitful moment in time. Yet, as I pace quickly through my neighborhood come nightfall, admiring each glimpsed diorama, the expression feels fitting in its literal sense.

In a matter of days, drapes will be drawn closed again. Miniature stuffed Santas, tin soldiers, and brightly painted caroler dolls will disappear.

That's why the gift of a festive window isn't diminished by my repeated viewings, nor by each such gift's long list of anonymous, ephemeral recipients.

During a dark season thrown into relief by bright decor, I only hope the givers can fathom my pleasure as I stride silently by, unseen, telepathing my gratitude across their frosted lawns.

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