I grew up in Dallas, Texas, where Christmas lights are a competitive sport. The day after Thanksgiving, the first house on the block was illuminated, its outline twinkling against the night sky. Peeking through curtains and slowing down in their cars, neighbors paused to observe this first, brave effort: the gauntlet had been thrown. It was a domino effect—by the next night, five more houses would be lit, then ten, then twenty, then thirty, until natural night was banished from Highland Park and replaced by red, green, and white lights.
Door frames, windows, chimneys, and roofs: nothing was beyond the reach of the lights or the scope of the imagination. Architectural features that during the rest of the year went unnoticed were suddenly the topic of conversation: “I never noticed you had eaves before,” neighbors said, staring at their competitor’s house and quietly fuming that their sloping roofs made the addition of a Santa sleigh impossible. “Are those new since last year?” neighbors asked, scratching their chins at window boxes that held flashing strands of electronic holly. “Specially built, you say?”
The decorations that accompanied the lights ranged from the spectacular to the bizarre. Life- sized nativity scenes were commonplace in front yards as paperboys aimed their newspapers in the gap between Mary and the wise men, occasionally missing and decapitating a shepherd. Shimmering palm trees came complete with glistening coconuts. Forests of six-foot-tall red candy canes and giant nutcrackers with slack jaws were common yard adornments. So too were the miniature trains that blew smoke as their pistons moved in place. Tiny lights on green lawns spelled out Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or the occasional Bible verse. Inflatable Santas eleven feet tall were in vogue for a few years, but after the escape of one Saint Nick from his tether resulted in the crushing death of Mrs. Number Twenty-Four’s cat, they became less popular and languished, on sale in the grocery store. Nodding, animatronic reindeer were a go-to for anyone looking to add movement to their display. Up and down the block, these red-nosed robots agreed with each other in unison like an army of silent conspirators. These were popular until the family on the corner got a pen of live reindeer. These beasts didn’t join the conspiracy: real reindeer, it turned out, didn’t nod.
My family were ex-pats. We moved to Dallas from Reigate, a small market town in the middle of England where the only holiday decorations were a few wreaths (and even those were sniffed at if they contained too much glitter or too many bows). And so we spent our first Christmas in America driving around our adopted Texan neighborhood, noses pressed against the car windows, looking at the miles of sparkling houses. My mother took pictures of the biggest mansions to send home. Great, marble columns were wrapped in lights that wound up from the ground like fluorescent vines. Boughs of rustling pine needles sat like eyebrows above windowpanes as the curtains blinked. “Can you believe it?” my mother muttered, as the camera flashed.
“Wowee,” my father whistled. “Wowee.”
I was eleven and had never seen anything so beautiful as the towering oak, chestnut, and pecan trees that twinkled by the side of the road. Every branch had a starring role. The thinnest twigs, like many-ringed fingers, pushed the night backwards. I made my father pull over so I could stand in the golden shadow of these trees and stare up into light.
During that first year, I envisioned the occupants of these houses putting up the lights. Like a scene from a Christmas card, I imagined families out on the lawn with long spools of lights around their arms. In my imagination, they always had mugs of cocoa. They were always singing and wearing matching hats.
“Everyone’ll know we’re British,” I cried at my parents as they hung a wreath on the door and our house fell in the shadow of those on either side.
“Lovely,” my mother said, steeping back and surveying the single red bow, talking over my suggestions of more lights or perhaps an electronic reindeer. “Lovely.” My parents didn’t light the pecan tree in the front yard, but put a circle of lanterns around the base so that, in the dark, it looked like the outline of a hole in the ground.
“I can’t reach up there,” my father said when I suggested we light the whole tree and paint all the pecans with silver paint. Meanwhile, the houses around us flashed and glittered, and each morning in December, I threw open my curtains to new decorations or a newly lit tree.
“How do they do it overnight?” I asked my parents at breakfast as they sipped their coffee and then changed the subject, embarrassed, I thought, about our lack of light.
By the time our second Christmas in Texas rolled around, I had joined the basketball team, a foolish error that involved five a.m. practices at the high-school gym. Still in his pajamas, my father drove me each morning. Through the quiet streets, we wended our way and ran every stop sign. “It’s too early,” my father muttered to my protestations.
It was on one of these mornings, in early November, when I saw my first light men. Paused at a red light, I watched as seven men paced the lawn of a large white clapboard colonial with a full wraparound porch. They had ladders and ropes and hooks and poles and carried between them a large silver box. “Gardeners?” I asked my father who stiffened in the driver’s seat, suddenly wide- awake.
I had stopped asking my parents why none of our neighbors mowed their own lawns. I had accepted as fact that teams of Mexican men, in all weathers, cut the grass and trimmed the trees, planted flowers and raked stones. I had become so accustomed o this sight of these men that I had started suggesting that my father employ such a crew since “everyone else does!” I had begun, that morning, to reiterate this argument, until the light men’s bright light filled the car.
It was as if the ground outside had cracked and the power from the earth’s core had been released in hundreds of tiny white beads that hovered above the blades of grey grass. This low-to the-ground light revealed the kneecaps of not seven, not nine, but at least fifteen men on the lawn. Rubbing my eyes, I saw hundreds of strings of lights like armies of chained fireflies. And my hand went to the window, a black star against the white light.
The men yawned and stretched, scratching their heads before picking up armfuls of lights. With only their shoulders lit in the darkness, they slouched toward the branches of the tree and began to climb, the lights slipping down their backs like golden cloaks. “They’re hanging the Christmas lights,” I said as my father stared at the road in front. “Did you know about this?”
In the gym, my teammates scoffed at my surprise. “Of course,” Sally Dawson said before sinking a free throw. “Our gardener does our lights every year.” Daniel Jones couldn’t remember if it was his “pool man” or his gardener that did the lights. Shelly Thomas’s family “didn’t do lights,” but she still knew about the crews. I reported my discovery to my mother at dinner, expecting her to join in my indignation. Instead she exchanged a look with my father who further mashed his potatoes.
“Of course,” my mother said. “It’s a big job—some of those houses are very large.”
These men became my fascination. I left early for school every morning in November and December, insisting that I walk myself to practice. I sought out the crews, searching the still darkness for the lights or the sound of the hammer. Once I’d found them, I ate my breakfast on the curbside and watched as teams strung multicolored lights. They were acrobats, twirling fog and light and night around their gloves. Sometimes they’d abandon their ladders and crawl along the arms of the trees, swinging from branch to branch as the sleepy neighborhood began to wake, the slow curl of smoke issuing from the outlined chimneys.
I became an expert from watching the light men. The magical silver box from that first morning was, I learned, a generator, the size of which varied depending on the job. I could tell a C7 from a C9 bulb. An LED light was faster to install, I deduced, than a solar light. The animatronic reindeer came in small boxes and needed to be assembled with a screwdriver. Sleighs were hoisted on winches, and giant wreathes were weather-proofed with ten cans of spray before they were mounted in all their circular glory. I began to recognize different crews: the men who decorated the bigger houses had taller ladders and started earlier. The ones who did the smaller houses had fewer members and fewer ropes.
I never spoke to these men from my position on the opposite side of the road, and they never spoke to me. But each morning, just before sunrise, a van arrived with hot food—opening its hatch to reveal flasks of coffee and tea and foil-wrapped breakfasts that smelled a lot better than the two slices of toast I had hastily sandwiched in some kitchen paper. The men lined up in front of the van as a radio softly played a local Spanish-language station.
By this time, I was used to conversations about when to turn off the porch light at Halloween. Standing in groups of neighbors, I listened as they estimated what time the trucks of Mexican families would appear. The candy, our neighbor Tiara, told my parents, “should stop. We don’t want to encourage them.” The majority of my school was white, but a sizable number of my classmates came had near-perfect Spanish from Mexican nannies. There were malls we didn’t go to because they were considered to cater to the Mexican population, and there were neighborhoods our school instructed us to avoid after dark. There was a day each autumn when a knock at our front door signaled the arrival of Hispanic women who asked if they could gather the fallen pecans from our lawn.
“What do they make?” I asked my mother, watching from the porch.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “But I’d sure like to try some.”
It would be years before I understood why groups of men stood on the street corner in the early morning light, waiting for a foreman to come and offer a day’s work. I would be in college before I heard about Minutemen or understood border politics—before I knew what “wetback” meant. All I knew was that, for one month each year, the pre-dawn trees were full of men who looked down on the neighborhood and cast light into the gloom. And I wanted to be one of them. From my position on the curb, I wanted to be high up in the warm branches with the men and their lights.
The last time I watched the light men was a dull, grey morning with low-hanging clouds. Sitting on the pavement, I watched as they worked on an especially large house. The men had finished the outline of the roof a few days prior and had started at the base of the fifty-foot oak at five a.m. that morning. Halfway done, they crawled along the braches as the occasional car moved sleepily past, occasionally running the stoplight.
To this day, I cannot recall which came first—the yell or the snap. Or maybe they occurred at the same moment. But I do remember the back of the man’s jacket billowing out as he fell. And it took him an age to fall, slamming into one branch and then hitting the one below, the audible crack crack crack breaking the morning silence as twigs rained down from among the lights.
The radio played low and slow as he swung, suspended by his foot, for a moment. Caught in a string of lights, his face grew increasingly red before he fell the final four feet to the ground below. I knew enough Spanish to know that the men were calling for him to stay down as they scrambled back down their ladders and ran across the lawn as the sun rose. I knew enough about the human body to know that you can’t fall a hundred feet and bounce from branch to branch without a scratch. I knew enough about the human face to know that the light men, as they arrived at the side of the heap on the ground, were frightened.
After the shouts from the descending men in the trees, curtains flickered in the surrounding houses. And Mrs. Number Twenty-Five came out onto her porch, sipping a mug of coffee. More neighbors appeared behind windows, and Mr. Number Twelve paused, on the way to his car—surveying the scene on his lawn. Nobody said a word. The Christmas lights up and down the block—all on timers—pinged off as the sunlight jumped from lawn to lawn and fell onto the group of men.
Without speaking, the men half-lifted, half-dragged the light man to the back of a truck and took off. The string of lights still moved in the breeze and the generator buzzed. The hooks glinted where they had been stuck in the ground. Car doors opened and shut. The clink of crockery, the murmur of voices, and the opening monologue of Good Morning America fell from open windows. I wandered over and stopped the string going back and forth. I held it for a second. The lights weren’t as hot as I imagined them to be.
I learned to drive the following summer and took routes to avoid the light crews in the autumn and winter. When I did see them, I sped up. I left Texas for England a long time ago. But I still find myself drawn to houses that are lit in the holidays. I linger on the opposite side of the pavement, and sometimes I sit down and take in the flashing Santas and reindeer. But they aren’t as perfect as the houses in Texas. And the man swings in my memory like a metronome, counting down the days till Christmas.