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Christmas Displays With Personality
From Tasteful to Tacky, It's All in the Holiday Decorating Spirit

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

When it comes to outdoor Christmas decor, Jackie Balser is not a White-Light Type. White-Light Types' front lawns evoke a Martha Stewarty, understated elegance. She's more a Colored-Light Type, but not, she likes to think, in a tacky, overdone way -- more in a festive, kid-friendly Winter Wonderland kind of way.

She likes to watch kids' faces light up when they see the blinking lollipops and twinkling candy canes, red candy arch, plastic elf, Santa, a glowing rocking horse her 8-year-old son Alex has dubbed "Sea Biscuit" and the Christmas tree surrounded by little lighted gingerbread men. "It's sort of a Candyland theme this year," she says proudly.

She and her husband begin creating this Christmas magic on paper, making sketches just after the Thanksgiving dinner dishes are done. And this year, as Balser dragged box after carefully labeled red and green box out of storage in the attic, she began to think that, these days, there is another type of Christmas person as well: the Inflatable Type.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

First, there is the issue of care. It took an electrician to put in two new outdoor outlets and 24 hours of work each for her and her husband, she calculates, to create their intricate display. And that doesn't count the times she wakes at 4 a.m. with a new idea. With an inflatable, she says, all you have to do is plug it in.

Leaving taste aside, there's also the issue, oh, sprezzatura -- the art of being effortlessly artistic.

"It's just that, when I'd go out to look at Christmas lights, you just never knew what to expect. Every house was different. Different personalities came out," Balser said wistfully. "With an inflatable, you know what to expect. The stores sell the same things. After a few minutes, a few seconds really, it becomes boring."

Ed Cather is an Inflatable Type. And Cather, who these days answers the phone jokingly with a hearty "Santa Claus," couldn't disagree more.

You see, when you live in Alexandria's Old Town, when the city's Board of Architectural Review gets to decide the "appropriateness" of your every house-altering move, down to the paint color, and when your neighbors' townhouses are so tastefully wrapped in garlands of magnolia or boxwood and done up in white lights, poinsettias or rows of fresh fruit a la Colonial days, erecting an eight-foot-tall inflatable Santa on a specially built plywood platform that practically dwarfs your 13-foot-wide townhouse shows a lot of personality.

"I sort of like to think outside the box and sort of torment the rest of the people in Old Town because they're all sort of proper and prim," Cather said, chuckling. "My wife thinks it's trashy, but I think it's great. I love it. Parents bring their children by. They love it."

Cather, 70, a real estate developer, never was much for outdoor Christmas decorating in the past. Oh, maybe they'd have a wreath on the door of the house where they've lived since 1971, but he'd never put up lights.

Then during the presidential election last year, when all his neighbors had tiny Kerry-Edwards signs out, he threw up a giant Bush-Cheney sign. "That really got them going. It was great," he said. For Alexandria's traditional Scottish Christmas Walk, he displayed an even bigger "Go Navy" sign to root for the football team of his alma mater, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.

When he was at Lowe's a few days later, he saw the blow-up Santa. He had to have it. In one gigantic swoop, he could tweak his neighbors and thumb his nose at political correctness. "Nobody recognizes Santa Claus anymore. It's 'Happy Holidays,' the ACLU and all that stuff," Cather said. "No one wants to offend anyone by saying 'Merry Christmas.' It's ridiculous. I guess you could say I'm a born-again Santa Claus person."

Cather's wife, Indie, just rolls her eyes. "This is not a midlife crisis. This is old-age insanity," she said. She gazed across the street and sighed. "Oh look," she said, admiring her neighbor's house. "She's got fresh poinsettias in the window this year."

To her, inflatables are tacky in the worst way.

"Yeah they are, they are," Ed Cather rejoined. "And I've got a lot of friends who think I'm tacky. But I could give a damn. I could care less. I'll be out there with the tackiest stuff. The older you get . . . you just do what you want to do. I just keep waiting for someone from the Board of Architectural Review to come by and say I can't have it."

Cather is now eyeing an inflatable Rudolph, marked down to $75 from $97, and he has been trying to figure out how to get it on his balcony. His wife strictly forbade such excess this year, but he said he plans to work on her through the year.

"Wait till I get the Rudolph and the sleigh next year; that's really going to be cool," he said gleefully. "It's going to look like the North Pole."

* * *

In the Northern Hemisphere, where the sun's rays grow dimmest every year in December, humans have been lighting up the dark winter skies since primitive times. As the days shortened and food became scarce, just about every culture in every era -- the Zoroastrians in Persia, the Egyptians in Africa, the Norse and Druids in Europe, the Hopi in North America -- lit candles, burned logs or performed rituals of light to call back the dying sun.

But the party didn't really get started until the advent of the electric light bulb. In 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison's, strung red, white and blue electric lights -- instead of candles -- on his tree for the first time.

Over the next few decades, electric Christmas lights were so expensive that only those in high society could afford to buy or rent them. The first outdoor Christmas lights weren't introduced until 1927. Power companies began sponsoring outdoor decorating contests to encourage people to get into the spirit -- and spend more money on electricity. In the 1950s came bubble, blinking and fairy lights. In the 1990s came Martha Stewart's propensity for tiny, all-white lights. And in the last two or three years, as colored lights and their nostalgic feel of a simpler time have made a comeback, inflatables have appeared on the scene and become wildly popular. It's something Christmas trend-watchers are noting: That after a decade of anemic white lights, colorful frills, big, fat, fun and wacky gaudiness are back. This year's rage: a $150 eight-foot-tall inflatable illuminated snow globe filled with 1.5 million pellets of fake snow.

Shows on HGTV and Web sites such as http://www.planetchristmas.com/ and http://www.uglychristmaslights.com/ show us at our electrified and inflated tasteful best and wacky worst.

This year, the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association bravely opened the judging of its annual Holiday Decorating Contest to the public. Instead of judges driving around and picking out the prettiest and most tasteful displays, members of the public have until Dec. 26 to vote on their favorites at http://www.funside.com/ . This year's finalists run the gamut of taste and style, from white lights to "over the top" inflatables.

And it's not just Americans overdoing or doing up the night anymore. Matt Phillips, who runs http://uglychristmaslights.com/ , dubbed one lights-and-inflatable creation from 2004 "Las Vegas Christmas." The house was actually in England.

When it comes to the Light Type vs. the Inflatable Type argument, however, Phillips, who runs the site and answers fan mail as Santa Claus, is mum.

White Lights Types vs. Colored Lights Types? "Either one can look ugly. Either one can look nice," he said.

Inflatable Types: "One inflatable on your lawn is not terrible. Fifteen -- there's something a little wrong."

* * *

Balser, 45, a consultant for nonprofit children's organizations, once had a small inflatable Nutcracker. All she had to do was plug it in and walk away. But it didn't last long, and when the plastic got little holes in it and the little man wouldn't blow up, she threw it away.

As a child of Filipino immigrants living in small apartments, she grew up looking at other people's Christmas lights. She never really had any of her own. When her husband took her to New York City at Christmastime early in their courtship, the lights at Rockefeller Center and the Macy's window displays sparked something.

But it wasn't until she had Alex that Balser began to go all out for Christmas. "I just enjoyed watching his face light up," she says. "He was a very wanted child. It makes you appreciate things."

And it makes you want to take the time to make things special, she said. She cut her hours to part-time and began working from home once she had Alex. She began to live by the credo: "You can't buy time back."

Now the house is a Christmas feast for the eyes, inside and out, with a tree that Alex named Kong, shiny oversize ornaments on the mantle, stockings by the fireplace and in the living room an intricate railroad village, which is Alex's job to set up. And there's a life-size singing Santa downstairs in the family room.

As the sun sets and the Candyland of Country Club Hills in Arlington begins to glow, Alex's friends wander past to ooh and aah and nab some miniature candy canes that Balser leaves out for neighborhood kids. "I call this my Winter Wonderland," said Dylan Ambrogi, 7. "Yeah," said Tyler Taneyhill, also 7.

"I think this is cool," Alex said.

For Balser, this exchange makes the time and effort worthwhile.

"We'll have all the kids come and wander in and touch everything. I want them to touch everything, to feel like they're in a magical place," she said. "When all you have are huge inflatables, it takes away from that."

In the end, regardless of the Christmas decorating type, Balser's lights and Cather's air-filled Santa cast off the darkness of these long December nights. They may not call back the sun, as the primitives tried to do, and neither is likely to appear in Martha Stewart Living magazine, but both displays call forth the season's festive and good-hearted spirit. And isn't that what Christmas lights are all about?

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