A Christmas Story

When I lived in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the neighborhoods still had a considerable number of old-timers who decorated their house windows for each and every holiday as well as all occasions in-between.  Although I was told the decorations were not with the prevalence and gusto of years before, I was lucky to have been there before ironic hipsters and bankers came and all those windows darkened into just well-covered glass portals covered by cheap blinds and maybe a dying plant.  Gone were the saint statues, the ornaments, and all the other ways those old folks projected their creative interpretations of each holiday to passersby and made their neighborhood unique. There seems to be some unity lost in the vanishing of common celebrations.  As we maintain holidays according to our own liking and encouraged to express this in a way that is unique, the singular expression of an area is lost and perhaps some level of community. That, and those houses are now divided into any number of apartments.

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I seem to remember more twinkling lights on houses around the holidays.  The sort of electric bulbs the British call faerie lights.  Perhaps that is a sign of the progression of time upon my corpse and my wet brain. The belief that this or that or the other was such-and-such back when one was younger.  Nevertheless, there seems to be some diminishing in the decorations for the Western holidays, especially during Christmastide. This is not due to a complicated nature of today’s technology when it comes to decorating.  Back when I was young, Christmas lights were large, breakable, and one light on that sting had blown would then take out the rest of the endeavor and one had to screw in and out a n number of bulbs before identifying the offender.  We lived in suburbia then and some areas were thicker than others with lights, but it seemed that if there was a Christmas light neighborhood, it involved everyone.

With that in the renovation stores such as HomLowDepotes, the decorations for each commercialized season are in weeks sooner and sooner each year approaching Santa singularity with the merry Clause appearing in July.  The ease of access and the lowering price point for all things plastic and LED now that Chinese children have taken to making our furnishings do not appear to translate into a greater fervor in decoration spending [other than Halloween].

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Memories can be subversive and wholly incorrect. Perhaps in the age of CGI and epic spectacle, I expect more of the neighbors and each house should look like Times Square or Tokyo in illumination and shock and awe me like a roller coaster produced by Disney, Escher, and Kubla Khan.

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There are some areas where the decorating madness has not diminished at all, and perhaps has actually increased over the years. One of these areas is Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, a planned community of well-to-do New Yorkers who once came to that hillock to escape the city that now ensconces the fine houses and the vulgar McMansions.  Dyker Heights, as it may sound, is a nob of a hill in the otherwise flat lands down by the Verrazano Bridge and areas of Brooklyn that is considered “wow, way out there” by most Young Urban Professions.  One benefit of living in the Heights is that When the tides rise, this small rise may yet poke above the waves at 110 feet above sea level.  As with other nobs, hills, and overlooks, the wealthy congregated and a few mansions were constructed.  Over time, more fine houses cropped up.  Most are built in an electric style, a smattering of Mediterranean devices and strange cross-over forms and shapes that can only come from the melting pot of so many influences and financial wealth arriving a generation or two before higher education.

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Each Christmas this Gotham neighborhood is decked out in lights and all manner of Christmas expression with a special focus on the creche.  The creche is a display for only the serious Christmas celebrants.  For those unfamiliar with this ancient setup, it involves recreating the manger scene with the important figures of Mary, Joseph, Three Kings, a lamb or two, perhaps a camel, and of course an infant Jesus in a … well, a manger which is a little crate used to place hay to feed the farm animals. As with true devotees of the cause, the majority of the mangers did not yet have their baby Jesus, since it was not Christmas yet but the Eve of Christmas Eve.

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Reaching the area by public transportation is a drag. Wall Street was an hour away even back in 1898 and it seems little has changed since.  Considering the popularity of the display, driving is certainly worse as there is no parking close by, there is traffic, and one cannot linger at a particular house without a cacophony of horns and perhaps a few cow bells tossed in for a measure. The time spent to and from is lost in one form or another, so pack a book, load up your podcast playlist, or just get ready to stare into space for a time.  The night was unusually/typically warm for winter, depending on your views of climate and some changes…  The crowds were tight on the sidewalks, but for the most part polite.  There is a core to the decorations.  A central area where the lights festoon the houses in a manner that looks almost impossible to create or maintain.   Many of the houses are decorated by professional outfits.  Contractors who do the shimmying up the trees in order to wrap them in lights, set up and secure the waving Santas, the rotating wooden solders, the aim the projected images onto windows and walls.

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This is above and beyond even the wildest efforts of Big Jimmy or Mr. Herman from my childhood neighborhood. This setup was bigly.  If there is an epicenter of this phenomena, it is a number of houses on one of the streets that have in addition to the over-the-top display of various and sundry sanctioned, tradition, and commercial Christmas decor have bands, DJs, and live Santas cavorting.  “Mom, mom, you didn’t tell me Santa is real,” a small girl exclaimed. Not what I expected to hear since typically it’s a child admonishing a parent for propagating the falsehood of Santa.  At the center of the celebration was a tight crowd.  Some people seemed to be from the area while others had made the pilgrimage via one of the many tour buses that were lined up on a far avenue.  The sidewalks were no match for this sort of traffic, and the police were out in order to maintain order and add a level of safety.  A van full of police were dressed as elves with the driver as Santa showing that the law enforcement of this major city remains in some detente with the community.

Our merry band walked about Dyker Heights until the sights were taken in, and it was time to make that long journey back to a more familiar parts of the city.  We returned to our respective homes. On the way back to our apartment in Harlem we happened upon a fight were one man attacked another, exclaiming that he was going to kill him.  After several minutes of traded punches and some flopping about on the ground, it appeared that the man had indeed strangled the other one to death. The crowd exhorted the man to stop.  But, it seemed to no avail. We stood next to the young man on the street who had been selling Christmas trees for the past few weeks and was out there day and night, rain or shine.  We stood transfixed in disbelief before the event seemed to come to a conclusion.  We retreated to the safety of our building.  There are few decorations in the windows there from what we could see.  The next day we were told there was police crime tape on the corner, indicating a homicide.  In no time, this was torn down by the guys who set up a stand selling produce and honey.  Gotham may have more places to play, but it is still the dirty city.

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