A home – and heart’s – festive spirit

Light and light-filled holidays brighten the winter.

I’ve just come back from the most marvelously jubilant scene — “The Great Jack O’Lantern Blaze” at Van Cortland Manor in Croton-on-Hudson.

It’s a truly breathtaking display of wildly carved pumpkins lit up with candles from the inside and gathered in a critical mass along a walking path through a pastoral estate (and behind a Stop & Shop, as my son noted). Although it was obviously representative of Halloween, the light it generated felt more like a universally celebratory experience. As I think about what exactly makes a holiday or event look festive, I believe it is light and its visceral effect that have the power to make us feel happy in the moment. Winter holidays are pretty much all about illumination, both in the physical and spiritual sense — Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice to name a few. Even holiday sweaters have shimmer knit in them. 

Many years ago, when I was living displaced in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that is still not gentrified and probably never will be, I used to pass by rows of little houses on my way to the subway every day. They were slightly dirty, a little roughed-up and remarkable only in the fact that they were unremarkable. Except one. Like a little kid striding bravely up to a teacher and demanding to be noticed amid a classroom of identical faces, this one house screamed for attention so loudly that it was impossible to dismiss its cry. 

Every discernable surface was covered in decorations ranging from lights to flags to figurines and inflatables to electrified signage, bulbs, baubles and even edibles mounted and proffered with pride. I was usually highly judgmental of the extreme holiday lawn decorations we all slow our cars and our pace to look at. But whether I liked this personal statement or not, it held my fascination. I saw the humanity in it. This homeowner’s desire to spread light into the world reached me and made me smile. It was a wonder — a wonder of excess, a wonder of color and a wonder of inspiration, which can strike in any form if we are willing to see it that way. 

About a week before Valentine’s Day, damned if that house wasn’t fully loaded again, with hearts spilling out of its coffers. I decided to risk losing my citizenship as a disaffected New Yorker one day by knocking on the door while passing by. A tiny woman appeared, her jet-black hair sprayed to a full stop with fixative. I told her how much I liked her holiday embellishments and how unique I thought they were. She proceeded to invite me in to talk about them and show me the inside of her house. Yes, this really happened. Suspending all disbelief, I stepped into her living room, where every square inch was also replete with painstakingly installed thematic flourishes. She was the nicest person and was truly grateful for my acknowledgment of what I, at this point, realized was nothing short of folk art. I stayed only briefly, turning down refreshment and left with a glow on my face.

I only lived in that neighborhood for about another month and, as I had no ties to the area, I never went back. Every holiday that came around for the next couple of years though, I thought of her. 

Today, I can only wonder if the house still has the spark of her winningly festive spirit.

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