Critiqueing the light of Christmas time

A look at different methods used to display Christmas lights.

By: Pat Summers
   Few of us work as art or food critics, those discerning beings who pronounce judgment on the culinary or creative work of others. But the winter holiday season levels all ranks, making everyone who sees Christmas lights (and sees them and sees them) into potential critics.
   It seems fair: The white and multi-colored lights — as well as the window candles and illuminated figures — seem to be everywhere, and as we walk or drive by them, we can’t help noticing effects we like and results we wish we could pull the plug on. Presto! Feeling either inclination immediately makes us Christmas Light Critics.
   Now we can call the shots. We can say what’s good or bad, naughty or nice, in the big world of lights. One or two night rides around Princeton and its environs is all it takes to credential us for making judgments and maybe even devising a list of rules for Christmas lights.
   There’s a lot going on at this tiny town house: On the first floor, a line of white-light icicles defines the front door and garage, while multi-colored lights wrap two entry pillars; filling two second-floor windows, a giant double star in myriad colors and a blinking circle within a circle, with ever-changing pop-up additions. If this were music, it would be heavy metal. Whether light or sound, can anyone sleep there?
   In contrast: a Snowden Lane home where, in a trapezoid-shaped window, small multi-colored lights adorn a few branches in a pottery jug. That’s all, but in the deep winter darkness, its spare elegance suffices. Kindred spirits dress their holiday homes with a single outside ornament — a white-lighted wreath with a red bow.
   In counterpoint to the homeowner in nearby Hamilton Township whose display reportedly involves some 70,000 lights (and growing) and to the Country Gentleman, a sprawling light extravaganza on Route 518 near the junction of Route 206, there are the houses with just a single candle lighted in each window. Or the evergreen wreath with red velvet bow, softly spotlighted. Period.
   With Christmas lights, less is, invariably, enough. Consider the otherwise light-free home with three sizeable evergreens bunched on an outside corner: one with red lights; one, green; the third, blue. Striking. Simple. A prize-winner.
   But even here, alas, success did not breed success: Another time, the same homeowner upped the lovely "less" to what looked like "You thought that was good? Ha! That was just the beginning … ," with white lights (some of them blinking) blanketing bushes and outlining doorways and paths. So much for simplicity. The three-colored trees that once earned ovations can barely be "heard" in the visual cacophony.
   "More" becomes simply excruciating when it means using every outdoor light and illuminated novelty ever owned: twirly trees and candy cane lanes and lighted Santa and snowman figures and white-lighted deer — some of them slowly nodding, besides. An occasional creche turns up in the hodge-podge. Lucky creche.
   Wear a ring on every finger, or concentrate on one standout? Advising against egregious display of Christmas lights is about as likely to succeed as suggesting to the gym’s fat woman that tights with a short top are not the ideal combination. One person’s light dream is another’s … LIGHTmare.
   Light bulb colors and sizes can add to the ugliness-of-excess if they’re all mixed up then offered up only "because they’re there." The boring white-light icicles hanging from roofs look sillier yet in red or blue, and old style, big-bulb lights, no matter how they’re used, just seem tired — which the poor things probably are. Blinking colored lights, especially around windows, require only a delicatessen sign to complete the picture.
   There are always the definers, the straight-liners. Look, they seem to say, while outlining the roof of the family rancher, I can draw a straight line with lights! And, for good measure, I’ll do the same around my windows, my garage door, my tool shed, my dog house …
   Such literal-minded, linear Christmas lighting makes perfectly understandable the sheer pleasure at sight of the Lewis School tree, on Bayard Lane. So densely do the 150,000 lights cover the 30-foot tall tree that it suggests a white silhouette. At the opposite end of the delight scale are the trees exuberantly electrified in free-form fashion with zigzag swings of lights.
   Time for summary advice from a Christmas Light Critic:
   • Keep it simple — think "focus" rather than "scattershot."
   • Don’t ever go straight, as in outlining buildings.
   • Calculate contrast, as in all-white lights for an outside tree, with a low-slung bush or two in tiny multi-colors.
   • Ban the blinkin’ blinkers.
   • Quantity, not quality: One bush or small tree with multi-colored lights beats every bush and tree trying to make a statement.
   • Apply the "majority of one" concept — one beautiful lighted tree, inside or outside; one softly illuminated green wreath on a red door; one candle in each window.