As I untangle the outdoor Christmas lights, checking the bulbs
and getting ready to string them up, my thoughts drift back to Newark,
in the 1950s……………
“Dad, come on, its time to see the lights on the houses.
When can we go?”
“When it’s not a school night. You guys have work
to do”, Mom reminds us.
“How about Friday night, after dinner, and maybe we could
stop for ice cream on the way back!”
“What do you want, lights or ice cream!”
“Both, we would yell back.”
“How about we come back home and I’ll make us waffles
and ice cream while we watch TV. You can even stay up late”,
There it is, the bonus points----you can stay up late. We’re
in the happy zone now. We have a date with Christmas lights, and
waffles and ice cream……as good as a day off from school.
What a great way to start the Holiday season.
There is no question about it. The magic of Christmas belongs
to the lights. And how the old stores along Bloomfield Avenue used
to be ablaze with the season, colorful lights everywhere, sprayed
snowflakes on the windows, toys and gifts so nicely decorated; and
Branch Brook Toy Store…..now there are some treasured memories.
Sitting there on Bloomfield Avenue across from the Lake Street
bus garage (previously a trolley barn), was every kid’s dream
store—Branch Brook Toy Store. At Christmas it was an oasis
of toys and magic. The lights brought you into the store like a
flame entrances a moth. My fascination with that store started just
“Hey Harry, the catalogs are in. I just called the store.”
“Jim that’s super. Let’s go up after school”
My old school chum Jim and I would double time it from 4th Street
and Bloomfield Avenue to the toy store, almost exploding with excitement
upon entering. The catalog in question of course was the Lionel
Train catalog—that venerable piece of Americana that all red-blooded
boys drooled over and gawked at.
There amidst the waterfall of lights and displays lay the coveted
new models of train engines, accessories, and transformers. We would
have killed to own a deluxe, double handled train transformer for
our home layouts. Those colorful lights transfixed our gaze on the
sparkling train sets as our imaginations ran wild. What we could
do if we had a few bucks.
It was like when little Ralphie in the adorable Jean Shepard movie,
“A Christmas Story”, falls in love with the Red Ryder
BB gun in the store window. Blame it on the power of those Christmas
lights. I tell you, those lights are mesmerizing, an electric Svengalli.
We are talking big Christmas light bulbs here amigos, not those
namby-pamby little twinkly things. Each light was maybe 10 watts
in size, with many different colors. Sometimes folks put all one
color on their house, which I did not care for. I wanted color variety,
and lots of it.
There was one house I remember that had big Disney characters
made of wood and decorated with lights. That was our favorite. We
went back year after year. Sometimes Dad would remember seeing a
nicely decorated house on the way home from work and take us there
as well. Our little Holiday ride was not just our own family secret.
Lots of our friends did the same thing with their families. It was
Those big bulbs used lots of electricity too. I know. I work for
PSE&G and before the window air conditioners came along in great
numbers in the 1960s to give us that enormous surge in electricity
usage in the summer, PSE&G peak load used to be caused by all
the Christmas lights. Those bulbs can add up quick.
The big bulbs are making a comeback again after maybe 25 years
of being out of favor. I say welcome back. Big lights on the houses,
and on the trees, just like it used to be.
A memorable part of Christmas for me was laying under the Christmas
tree looking up at all the lights and sparkling decorations. Yes,
I know that was probably a weird thing to do, but I always enjoyed
getting a new perspective on things. It all seemed so magical and
still does now as I re-live the years through my younger family
But I must tell you about the special lights that got me all fired
up, more than anything else; and I miss them most of all…………….bubble
lights! I understand they too are making a comeback, and it is a
long overdue one if you ask me.
I simply went ape for those bubbling cylinders with the colorful
bases. We had two strings of those for decorating, and I always
begged to put them on the tree. You can keep that old fashioned
tinsel. Give me those bubble lights and some green/red/gold garland
and I am one happy Christmas puppy. I sat there for hours watching
those miniature percolating coffee pots bubbling back at me. Whoever
invented those should be enshrined in history. Talk about Christmas
As if all the lights were not enough, we Lionel train buffs used
to decorate our train layouts as well. We would drill holes in our
plywood train boards and run wiring up into the little houses and
station buildings, and rig them with small lights. Now the whole
board would glow, especially if you turned off the room lights,
and ran your little railroad in the dark. Talk about Holiday magic!
There is one thing left for me to mention. It’s the only
thing that can trump outdoor Christmas lights---and that’s
snow. The mere mention of snow around Christmas can still send shivers
up my spine. Lights take on a whole new atmosphere when real snow
is involved, ratcheting the experience up several notches.
My wife comes down to the basement to find me standing there, staring
off into space, with an illuminated light string in my hands.
“Hey Babe, didn’t you hear me calling you? Hello,
…where were you?”
“Newark”, I reply without thinking.
“What year was it this time?” she laughs.
“Did you enjoy yourself?”
“You know I always enjoy Christmas”
“Did you know you have tears in your eyes?”
“……Must have been the bright lights.”