We’re afraid of the dark. Like, really afraid. All of us. Being primates, I suppose that’s to be expected from an evolutionary perspective, but it doesn’t bode well for our hackneyed attempts to revolutionize our energy use. Do we really expect to completely change the way we drive, fly, eat, and stay warm when we can’t even turn off the lights?
This ominous revelation struck me a couple weeks ago as I wasted more precious minutes of the latter half of my life lurking through community groups on Facebook. Yeah, I should know better. Nothing good ever comes from knowing your neighbours better, save for those sharing your fence-lines. Still, I keep torturing myself, slouching on the couch and ingesting the latest whining about taxes being too high and poor city snow removal, incompatible arguments often voiced, ironically, by the same people.
The latest kerfuffle du jour, caught my interest immediately. An earnest resident, during a particularly cold spell in January, suggested to the community that perhaps now would be a good time to turn off the Christmas lights. The holidays were over, after all, and the added energy usage was ill-advised in light of (ha!) the added burden it placed on the struggling power grid during this cold snap.
Having witnessed a fellow street-dweller turn on Christmas lights in late September these past two years, this was a plea that resonated strongly with me. Judging by the handful of likes and praise it received, others felt likewise. But not everyone. The inevitable backlash came, as it always does, like a sudden bout of post-buffet diarrhea.
There were several benign “oh, but it looks so pretty and makes me feel happy during the gloomy winter” comments. A sincere sentiment, no doubt, but one that leaves me wondering how much time these people spend outside their homes in the dead of winter. In Canada. On the Prairies.
Someone stepped up with a factual rebuttal including a link to reference material (with math!) declaring that the electricity used by one string of LED lights was so negligible as to be irrelevant, a truthful argument so fraught with navel gazing it completely misses the cumulative effects of hundreds of strings of lights in hundreds of neighbourhoods in hundreds of cities and towns across the province.
Next, the “let him without sin” brigade made its hallowed appearance, chastising anyone who dare criticize our way of life lest they have lived in perfect environmental harmony since conception, including, one can only assume, a strictly missionary conception on behalf of their parents to boot. After all, if there’s no single, pure, universal fix for a problem, why try anything at all?
And it wouldn’t be Facebook if a little hostility didn’t seep into the peanut gallery in the forms of a “churches are for preaching” and a succinct “MYOB”, the “STFU” of polite company. The coldness of the latter retort balanced by its low-carbon brevity.
When I was a kid, Christmas lights, like Cadbury Creme Eggs, were a genuinely limited-time, special treat. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a few homes and high-profile businesses would brighten up the holiday season with colourful lights. It was easily one of my most favourite times of year, its very transience making it all the more exceptional.
One year, during one of those family slides viewing session we all were subjected to in the 70s/80s, I was stunned to witness a poorly exposed image of our house with Christmas lights strung along the front eave and a five-pointed star in the peak above the living room bay window. It was from some mystical time before my birth and I was astounded by what I saw in that photo and proceeded to nag my father annually to let us put lights up.
But lighting in those days did put a drain on things. The power grid, sure, but also budgets. This undoubtedly explained the rarity of the spectacle to begin with, as well as the fact those same lights disappear quicker than a campaign promise once December was finished.
It wasn’t until I was 15 and working at the local Home Hardware store that my father finally relented and let me put up Christmas lights on the house. I had to buy the lights myself, mind you, and do all the work. But it was totally worth it to see those alternating red and green bulbs amongst the shimmering ice stalactites hanging from the eaves of my childhood home. In later years, those same lights would adorn the juniper bushes out front, each melting their own glowing cavern in the pillowy snow. They remain the prettiest Christmas lights I’ve ever seen.
Nowadays, the Christmas light season isn’t nearly so unique or short-lived. We invented LED lights and rather than embrace the savings in energy costs, we’ve just put up more lights for longer. There’s now even a movement begging people to wait until after Remembrance Day before turning them on.
I imagine there’s an evolutionary reason for this too, but damn if it doesn’t devalue the whole experience. Coloured lights for 3, 4, and even 5 months of the year makes Christmas lighting little more than winter’s beach resort gaudiness. A suburban forgery of our commercial strip neon fetish.
By some measures, Christmas décor is rather tame, I suppose; ridiculous blowup creations, notwithstanding. Take your typical auto dealership with 24/7 lighting sufficient to summon UFOs directly from their home planets because we can’t risk missing a marketing opportunity to the drunks shuttling home in their Ubers at 3:00 am Sunday morning.
Then there’s all those downtown office towers shrouded in glass with entire floors lit up all day and night, a reminder that while you may not have a job anymore, we still do and that architects struggle with the concepts of a light switches and motion detection.
And don’t get me started on streetlights. They’re all a waste, but the ones on city highways are particularly bewildering. Endless blacktop ribbons designed solely for the passage of machines already affixed with their own light sources, drowned in an artificial orange glow. An amalgamation even more confusing now that those sodium-vapour lights are being replaced by the same blinding white LED lamps in modern headlights. We’re blinding ourselves to see.
Even our McMansions, new or renovated, have foregone the single porchlight in favour of an acne of exterior accent lighting.
Which brings me back to those benign “it looks pretty” rebuffs to my new favourite neighbour’s suggestion. You know what else is pretty? Will brighten your spirit during long, dreary, cold winter days when darkness shrouds your commute both to and from work? May even awaken your soul to a grand, humbling reality we’ve completely detached ourselves from?
The night fucking sky.