Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - January 18, 2019

Magical light show in the snow

I suppose it may be a bit late to still be thinking about Christmas, but the snowfall last weekend reminded me of one of our family traditions, a tradition I wonder how many others share.

Most people decorate trees and exchange gifts. But after those two customs, there’s a wide range of activities that are less universally engaged in and may have unique family twists. A gathering for a family meal may be one of these. We have done that for some time, but our tradition is to eat at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day.

Another less-common family tradition is to set aside one evening to look at outdoor Christmas lights. Since I lived on a farm near a small town when I was young, there wasn’t that much to see and so we didn’t make an annual event of it. But husband Art grew up in a city in Wisconsin. His father’s work as a mail messenger grew steadily busier from Thanksgiving until Christmas and then suddenly returned to normal. So their family sweeps through town to look at the lights took place after the big day.

Since our marriage, we have carried on with this tradition. In earlier years, Art’s mom Donna and his Aunt Ione joined us as we drove up and down the streets, singing Christmas carols and ooh-ing and ahh-ing at the displays along the way. When she was young, daughter Mariya would observe the lights from her perch in her car seat between Donna and Ione in the back seat. One time when she was about 3, a burst of laughter erupted from the two older ones. It seems Mariya was a bit put off because her Grandma and Great-Aunt were “hogging” the views of the lights. So she stretched out her arms, pushing both of them back in their seats so she could enjoy the decorations too. Donna and Ione enjoyed relating that story for years after.

When it comes to this tradition, Art’s home state has two things going for it that Kansas does not. One of these is we are all so busy right before the holiday that we don’t take the time. The other can be said in one word: snow. To us, snow makes the lights seem more special, but it is a bit more rare here at home. This year, with the temperature in the 50s in Manhattan, snow was in short supply.

But snow isn’t a certainty in Wisconsin either. We arrived two days after Christmas, but were initially a bit disappointed as only a dusting covered the ground. But on the very last day of the year, large flakes began to drift from the gathering clouds. By early evening, six inches of the white fluffy stuff covered the ground and trees. A bit after 5, we grabbed a bite to eat, popped a tape of Christmas music we listened to years ago in the car's cassette player, and then headed out to see the lights.

One of the highlights for me is going down College Avenue, the main street of Appleton. It is called the “Avenue of the Angels” during the holiday season as every intersection in the shopping area is adorned with golden trumpeting angels facing a gold star in the middle.

City Park is another favorite. In the middle, a single huge evergreen stands bejeweled with strings of green and blue lights and serves as a beacon in the winter wonderland. The park is surrounded by impressive Victorian-era homes. We nicknamed one “the castle” because its turrets, gables and gingerbread trim are all covered with twinkling lights.

While I’m impressed by the homes with so many lights that they look as if their owners had been inspired by National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, I’m partial to elegant, but simply-decorated homes - those with large evergreen wreaths tied with red bows and flickering candles in the windows. Maybe I like those because Art and I also have flickering candles in our windows.

I also like what I call “gumdrop” trees - short, squat bushes with lights and a layer of snow that make them look like they have a coating of sugar on top.

Year after year, we return to a display we discovered more than a decade ago. While it has many decorations, it is the large snowman that makes it special. He’s standing on the porch, waving with his right hand while holding a broom in his left as his head turns from side to side. His big smile and rosy cheeks make him appear cheerful, but his eyes are creepy, making him seem more like a scary clown. For years, we had a debate over whether his eyes were green or blue, with Art and daughter Katie taking one side and Mariya and me the other. It was hard to tell because of his constantly-moving head. But we finally settled it after taking a picture. The eyes change color as his head moves, and at any one time, he has one green eye and one that is blue!

There are some decorations I’m not fond of. Large, inflatable figures - Santas, dachshunds with Santa hats, snowmen, Homer Simpson, elves and gingerbread people - don’t do much for me. But we did have a laugh each time we passed one large Santa. The weight of the snow caused him to take a nose dive, bent over at the waist with his face planted in the snow. Since it was New Year’s Eve, it appeared as if Santa had been celebrating a bit too much. Not a pretty sight!

It was going on 11 p.m. by the time we finished re-tracing the routes we’ve taken in the three-plus decades we’ve been together. It always makes me happy to see the results of so many people taking time to decorate their homes and yards. I guess in a way it is another example of differing Christmas traditions. Some experience joy by putting up decorations, while others receive it by looking at them!

Top-left: the most-elaborately decorated home could not be captured in a still photo as it was in a continuous state of change. Perhaps a third of the lamps are lit in this photo and even they had come on in stages; bottom-left: an example of the "elegant" style where only white lamps are used for lighting and the home is made from light-colored stone lit by flood lamps. The freshly-fallen snow adds to the effect; right: a close-up of the snowman we visit every year.

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