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Neighbors Help Her See the (Early) Light of Christmas


We moved to Bakersfield at the end of July, when the heat shimmies in the street and any vertebrates spotted outdoors are probably part of a mirage.

Still, no sooner had our moving van pulled away from the curb than our new neighbors emerged from behind their shuttered blinds bearing homemade cookies and tips for fitting in, their friendliness as warm as the asphalt.

Within days, they threw a gutter party (grab a lawn chair, alcohol and food, and come sit on the lawn in the evening cool) on our behalf. My husband and I were moved.

As our daughters cavorted wildly in the cul-de-sac with the other neighborhood kids, while we sipped wine and gossiped about people we had never met, we knew we were not in Los Angeles anymore. We relaxed. We smiled and laughed. We drank. Bakersfield would do just fine.

Then Christmas was broached. The neighbors asked if anybody had explained it to us yet.

This seemed a little odd, but oh yes, we nodded, the real estate agent had said something about how Christmas was special around here.

Since my immediate concern at the time of this comment was unsticking my legs from the leather car seat so we could tour yet another house, I don't recall the word special setting off any alarms. After all, this was an agent talking, and not about special tax assessments, but about Christmas. As the temperature hovered near 100 degrees.

I was naive.

Our new friends explained to us how really very special Christmas can be. Memories of neighborhood Christmases past were recalled, in detail. Traditionalists Danielle and Dave, who live next door, erect 14 Christmas trees. Needless to say, their efforts take time. They start in September. Lela and Marty across the street went for a jazzier effect last year when they decorated a brand-new Toyota and included it in the display on their front yard. They will be doing something totally new this year.

Other Christmas oeuvres were critiqued. Was the lighted oil rig on the front lawn down the street a bit much? Nah. How about those 101 Dalmatians around the corner? Cuuuute . But does Disney really reflect the spirit of the holidays? Sure. Why not?

Those neighbors (not present) who were less than enthusiastic about the season were named. But at least they did put up a string of lights. There was a year that they did not. I volunteered that when we lived in our old neighborhood, we put a wreath on our front door. And a Christmas tree, of course, which could be seen from the outside. We have never done lights. Nope, just wasn't us.

Sure, the kids had advocated a Vegas approach, but we had stuck with something akin to an understated Colonial Williamsburg look. Maybe one year we'd try a few lights in the trees. They would be white, of course, twinkling if they must.

Well. Nothing was said at first, for the sake of courtesy. I'm just guessing here. Or maybe our new friends were simply stunned.

They started in on us slowly. They figured we'd come around.

You see, Lela said, there is this man Spencer, who just does marvelous work. Spencer is a private investigator in the off-season, but his real love is Christmas lights, and giant custom-made cutouts of whatever you want. Santa. Angels. Reindeer. The lion king. A babe in swaddling clothes.

Plus, in his line of work, Spencer can keep a secret. This is good. Isn't half the fun surprising the neighbors with what you've come up with next? There was that one year, for example, when the people on the next street over got together to coordinate a street-wide Christmas theme. But our neighbors got wind of it and organized their own theme in response. Our street was not to be outdone, or at least not without a fight.

My husband and I drank some more.

As I recall, that's when the first word of the tour buses slipped out, following the comparisons of electric bills. Right after Thanksgiving, this very cul-de-sac where the children now romped is lined with cars, and buses, and pedestrians hungering for a closer view. I think I must have gasped, Scrooge-like--before he'd been saved. Yes, this can be a drag, the neighbors conceded, but the look on the faces of the children! The cards and letters, the outpouring of thanks! The neighbors said they wouldn't have it any other way.

I wondered, "If I flash my garage door opener, will the tour buses open me a path to my own home?" Marty offered a tip: Take the back way home. The bus drivers aren't wise to that yet.

My husband and I went to bed in a stupor that night. Maybe it was the wine, or the heat. "It couldn't possibly be me," I told myself. Ebenezer had muttered those same words.

A few days later, I was traveling and called my husband from the road. I was in Oregon, where it was cooler, and there was no talk of fake snow.

How were things? I asked. Oh, fine, my husband said. Spencer and his wife, wearing matching T-shirts and toting a carousel of slides and a projector, had paid him a call. The neighbors had suggested he drop by.

White lights? Forget about it. Make the place look like a light bulb, my husband said. But Spencer had a plan. Lights, multicolored, get them for you wholesale, installation included, you don't do a thing. No giant cutouts this time. Except Spencer for hire doesn't come cheap.

"But I didn't do the palm trees," my husband said in explaining how, really, he had held the line. "Those would have been $60 each."

As for me, I've seen the light. Lots of lights. I can see how they would make you feel warm inside, especially in this heat.

God bless our new neighbors, one and all. I figure we'll all be drinking eggnog together by Halloween.

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