Traveling through the dark American countryside in a safe, humming capsule, with lighted farmhouse windows strung like oblong beads on either side of the road -- here the luminescence of a tiny living room with TV turned on, there a kitchen warmly lit. The occasional disembodied eye of an upstairs room, telling stories one can only guess at drowsily.
Is this the same scene one has witnessed countless times, very nearly without thought, under darkening clouds or blue skies, in the full light of day? Is it Edward Hopper country, full of loneliness and sorrows? A place where promises are kept, social contracts met? A land of deep enchantment?
The latter, perhaps, during the Christmas season. Picture this: You are driving at night along a familiar two-lane road, the route that shoots through flat farmland in a path to and from the towns and beaches of southern Delaware. The intermittent punctuation of those solitary rectangles of soft light create an impression of infinite horizontality. Suddenly, your companion in the car quietly insists: Oh, look, there!
Out in the blackness beyond the headlamps' arc, floating in a field you cannot see, under an un-citylike canopy of deep-dark sky, there appears a house outlined in strings of white and colored lights. Not just the rectangle of its front facade: the whole three-dimensional thing. Door, columns, pediment, windows, roof, gables, front and sides. A rootless, flickering, magical vision -- quickly gone.
Time spent talking: Calculate the footage of the strings, the size of the bulbs. The work it must have taken. Did they use ladders, a cherry picker? Did Dad and Mom do it? Kids and friends pitch in? Is this the first occasion for such a spectacle, or a long tradition? Do family stories circulate around the event -- the year Sally broke her leg, the time Jim forgot to string the western gable? Did we see this thing, was it really there? No bother. The sudden beauty of the image was like a gift -- was a gift.
Country lights, they exert an extra pull upon our imaginations, do they not, in this bountiful endless land? Country architecture itself does this trick. We live in a megalopolis, know of the family farm's decline. But the buildings of a well-kept farm, properly measured upon the land and fine-tuned to their material purposes, remind us of fathers, grandmothers, great-grandparents; of times and places we came from; of losses and gains, of values discarded, kept.
And, if this is the case, how much more intense the reminder when the centerpiece of every farm -- the quintessential American home -- is so perfectly defined by light. An ephemeral roadside vision, yes. But not an apparition.
The startling sight was not so different, in a way, from the time last year, driving into Fort Worth, with the flat-topped skyscrapers outlined in green. Absolutely ordinary big buildings, ungainly, inhospitable things, as daylight would prove. But transformed utterly at night. Architecture can possess uncommon magic when dematerialized: Gothic builders knew this; city builders in our own time, armed with the 20th-century tool of electricity, know it too.
The bright rural image stirred memories, also, of a December walk not long ago down Pennsylvania Avenue. Of Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, where light very nearly was the architecture, light and movement symbolizing a million million connections, the actualities of contemporary urban life. A spectacle so common and yet so extraordinary you could not help but think: Christmas every single night. And recollections of holidays at Rockefeller Center when you were a kid crossing over from the Jersey side, with sparkles so pervasive it was like walking around inside a Christmas tree.
The appeal of Christmas lights is basic. If we're lucky, it doesn't go away. They're terrific balms for cynicism. Sure, long experience teaches that the custom of hanging lights outside our houses has much to do with social pretension, remorseless competition: More wreaths, Santas, elves, reindeer and above all more lights than the people next door or the shopping center down the street. Or, if not bigger display, better: the supposed tastefulness of uniformly white sparkle lights. One can with some precision catalogue the class territories of city and suburb by simply passing through at night, looking at the lights.
But so what? Experience fortunately suggests as well that we treat such findings with scant respect. The power of lights at night to inspire is ancient. Fires to cook, to warm, to scare, to awe -- no raging blazes out of control, these were domestic fires that in northern lands became, with the advent of architecture, the central hearth round which clans and families literally and symbolically would gather. Is this the beginning of Christmas lights, the wish to keep at bay the demons of the dark, to symbolize the cozy nest?
Maybe. Christmas lights do have pagan as well as Christian roots. Even more fundamental is the fact that for most of us who have participated in the secular rituals, at least, the very first thrill of Christmas was discovered in the light of a single bulb reflected in a silvery globe hanging from the low limb of the tree. What mystery, magic and delight it told us to expect, in the secret land of life outside ourselves. It's a sensation we can carry with us, despite all, a lesson we can elaborate, preserve, protect.
What else but a tremendous refinement of this childhood wonder -- this promise secured by the transformative quality of light -- is the majesty of all west rose windows in all cathedrals as days end? What other than a survival of this instinct is our gratitude for the solitary bulb in a darkened window, the multicolored nimbus around a door as we walk down a street?
The sanity of our appreciation can be sorely tested: illnesses, accidents, wars, killings. But no matter how bad the news -- no matter that, as realists, we know the news can always get worse -- we rebound if we humanly can. Our recoil at the drive-by -- drive-by! -- shootings of children on a Washington street Thursday was intensified by the detail of twinkling Christmas lights nearby. The contrast of these simple signs of hope with the brutish act does sharply etch its brutishness.
Sanely interpreted, the lights all around at this time of year are clearly there to guide us. And if we forget, well, occasionally a vision will appear, miracle will happen, gift be given. Many thanks to the family somewhere on the road outside Denton, Md. We got the message.