Belmont is a neighborhood for lawn ornaments. We decorate the private landscape: Canada geese by the front walk, pink flamingos in the garden bed, a fawn on the lawn, a floppy bow on a board fence, a covered wagon on the mailbox post. We like miniature grottoes, recirculating fountains, birdbaths on pedestals, and gnomes in nooks. We hang plastic eggs in the leafless dogwood in early spring, put orange pumpkins and purple chrysanthemums on the ground for fall, and raise flags in all seasons, but especially in summer the Stars and Stripes.
For Halloween, we make the front yard a cemetery. Horrible gravestones sprout from the grass, ghosts and skeletons hang from trees, monsters lurk in the shrubbery, and human arms and heads emerge from the earth, as if clawing their way out from a premature burial. Spider webs of gigantic size drape porches and hedges. The resident spider has eyes that glow. A body slumps in the front porch swing, and evil laughter ripples from the shrubbery.
On the night of October 31, children in costume swarm the streets: princesses, knights, and superheroes. They wear crowns that oppress them and capes that trip them up. More children arrive in passenger cars and sport utility vehicles. The outsiders are older, with better makeup: zombies, freaks, and presidential hopefuls. They know this is good hunting ground. We admire them all and dole out candy as if there were no tomorrow.
From late November, the holiday season, we deck entire houses and yards in electric lights. They vary from simple white and steady to complex arrangements of color and intensity, flashers and throbbers, primly coordinated and lavishly chaotic. Luminous figures of Santa Claus, bright reindeer, angels, and marvelous beings of legend appear. They stand on rooftops, gather in yards, and magically hang in the air.
There are crèches, camels, wise men, shepherds, mangers, sheds, and holy parents and infants, to be sure, interpreted in vinyl and impervious to weather. They glow from within, or a spotlight strikes them in theatrical poses. The Nativity is present. Mrs. Shifflett next door has a set of six life-size figures that date from the 1970s, each with a forty-watt bulb inserted in the middle of their back. They have held up well during all these years—Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus, and the interracial trio of the Three Kings.
But the drama goes beyond anything Christian. It is wrong to call these illuminated set-ups Christmas lights. They feature Jewish six-pointed stars, pagan devices, gingerbread persons, Tibetan prayer flags, cartoon characters, and popular icons. Frosty the Snowman, the Ice Queen, Elvis, Pocahontas, and Winnie the Pooh all make their appearance.
The holidays nowadays are inclusive and tolerant, indigenous and laissez-faire. In Richmond, the nearest big city to the east, residents mount a Tacky Lights Tour, self-conscious and laced with irony. Some folks claim that colored lights are a Southern Tradition, along with barbecue, magnolias, and fantasies of antebellum life. Here in Belmont, something more is in the works, what Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence.” In 1912, the French sociologist and philosopher wrote in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life:
You witness a moral community being forged: sacred rites and beliefs clearly emerge. You begin to realize that the elementary forms of religious life permeate not only traditional but modern societies as well.
While the effect may be communal, the driving force is individual. Neighbor strives to outdo neighbor in the scale of their lights, the sheer audacity of electrical excess. At the risk of life and limb on a ladder, they mount a star on a chimney. They climb on roofs to decorate dormers and gables with strings of lights. They construct tableaux of their favorite characters, all aglow. Trees resemble galaxies. Structural props and power cables are carefully concealed to enhance the illusion of pure light.
After dinner and shortly before turning in for a long winter’s nap, in the sable chill of a windless night, what a pleasure it is to walk in the neighborhood. Few are out and about. The festive lights shine for the solitary stroller. Be as greedy as you like, they will shine as bright for the next stray soul. A fresh fall of snow powders the ground. The pavements are clear, and the streets are safe. While crime does occur—we are human, after all—Belmont is as good a place to walk by night as any on earth. The difficulty lies in knowing which street puts on a better show. You may have to round the block and return to catch the other side.
Or save some for later. The lights stay lit till morning. We will be here tomorrow night and the one after that. If you see another walker, don’t be a stranger. We talk to anyone.