What to do with an extra strand of Christmas lights? Start a tradition.

We really didn't need more lights, but they were from my childhood home.

Some years ago, my mother bought a condominium and prepared to move from her suburban house. When my family visited her that fall, she gave me boxes of my childhood treasures along with the wing-backed chair where I had nestled and read countless books.

"Would you like these Christmas lights?" my mother asked. "I'm going to scale back, have a smaller tree."

We really didn't need more lights, but the strand in her hand – and others like it – had encircled the living-room window of my childhood home. The small multicolored lights had greeted me when I returned from college and then sparkled all through the holidays.

"Here are a couple of ornaments from your grandmother, plus the one you made as a toddler," my mother added.

Alongside the antique glass lantern swathed in shredded paper lay an English walnut partially covered with crumpled tinfoil with a loop of blue velvet ribbon. The tattered foil reminded me of the satin-covered Styrofoam balls that my sons had decorated with glue, glitter, and sequins.

"Thank you," I said, holding another segment of my childhood.

The Sunday before Christmas that year, my husband, John, and I piled pine boughs and spruce branches from our woods onto our sons' sleds. They hauled them home across the snow-covered pasture, along with a small pine we dug up for a live Christmas tree.

John draped boughs the length of the beam that runs down the center of our timber-frame house while I unpacked boxes.

Our friends had contributed to our ornament collection with cut-paper rabbits, felt angels, and quilted stars. We threaded strings of lights and tinsel across the boughs, but when we finished, the lights my mother had given me still sat on the table.

"We don't have space for more lights," John said as he eyed the beam where a St. Nicholas swayed beside sand dollars hanging on red ribbons.

We glanced at the boys' tree, smothered in paper chains, satin balls, and silver icicles.

"I suppose I could tape them around a window," I said.

"Can I have them?" 6-year-old Carlos asked.

"Sure," I answered, figuring he would decorate his room and maybe hang the lights around the bunk beds.

But when Carlos, John, and Matthew went out to milk the goats and collect eggs that evening, Carlos took along the lights and a roll of duct tape.

Half an hour later, John stomped snow off his boots. "Did you look outside?" he asked as he handed me a bucket filled with frothy milk.

I rubbed condensation from the kitchen window and stared at the red, blue, green, and yellow lights that framed the chicken coop's window. The snow reflected the bright bulbs in a watercolor wash.

"Think the chickens will lay more eggs?" Carlos asked.

"I'm sure they will," I answered this son who loved eggs for breakfast.

For some reason, Carlos never did that again. But years later, after John and I had arranged icicle lights along the front of our house, we still had a couple of strands left over. We stood in the December twilight holding them.

"Well," John said, "they'd look good on the goat barn."

Our eyes met, remembering a roll of duct tape and a black-haired 6-year-old who would soon complete his first term at college.

Naturally, we followed his example. And ever since that Christmas, icicle lights have swayed along the eaves of the goat barn, casting chips of color across the snow, lighting the path home.

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