Waiting for the Light

“When are we going?”

“Not quite yet, Missy.”

That’s not an unusual exchange in our house at most times. Missy, after all, is one of the world’s quiet extroverts – a person of few words (due to her developmental disability) who loves to be around people. Even the most mundane errand often sprouts an eager tagalong, even if there’s barely time to smile at the checkout clerk.

But as the evenings get longer and the air gets colder, the question becomes The Question. When she asks after dark, Missy’s not looking for crowds.

She’s looking for lights.

And these days, she’s not alone.

If you regularly stop by this column, you may know that Missy and I make a series of holiday light runs across all of Longmont through the holiday season. And if you haven’t dropped in from Andromeda, you know the season for lights and other holiday decor keeps getting earlier and earlier.

Long, long ago, the excitement started on Christmas Eve, kicking off the celebrated “twelve days of Christmas.” In fact, it was considered bad luck to decorate any earlier than Dec. 24.

A few generations ago, that shifted to Thanksgiving. After a day of good turkey and bad football, it was time to dig out the ladder and start hanging up the roof lights … once you’d shaken off the exhaustion of consuming 10,000 calories in one go, of course.

These days, and especially since the pandemic, it seemed to be fair game any time after Halloween. Our own family’s earliest record is the day after Veterans Day (attention must be paid) but some homes seem to have the clock-change motto of “Spring Forward, Fall Back Into a Blaze of Glory.”

it’s not hard to guess why. In times that feel dark – both literally and metaphorically – it’s natural to reach for all the light we can get. Some studies have even shown that early decorating can lift spirits, tapping into a reservoir of nostalgic feelings.

For myself, I worry a little bit about making the magical mundane. When something special becomes ubiquitous, it risks losing some of its wonder. We start to tune out what’s always there, and it would be a shame to consign something so brilliant to the realm of the ordinary.

But here’s the thing: it’s not a hard boundary. Each of us knows what our heart needs. And if reaching for a strand of colored lights brings you joy at a moment you need it, I’m not going to be the Christmas cop. (Likewise, if reaching for NO lights keeps your soul content, that’s OK, too.)

We all push back the shadows however we can. And anytime we can strengthen joy or ease pain, we’ve made the world a little better – regardless of the season.

That doesn’t require lights on the house. Just lights in the heart, as often as we can kindle them.

So best wishes to you, whether your own seasonal colors are spread across the front lawn or tightly packed in cardboard. Whatever you celebrate, however you do it, may it give you the strength and reassurance you need in the time ahead.

And in a couple of weeks, when Missy and I hit the road at last, we’ll make sure to wave as we go by.

By the Light’s Early Dawn

Ok. I’m officially one of Those People.

No, not a Raiders fan. (I do have my standards, you know.)

No, I haven’t started changing lanes without a turn signal.

And no, I haven’t been forgetting to take my mask off when I’m alone in the car. Not for more than one or two blocks, anyway.

This is something far more serious.

Ladies and gentlemen, my name is Scott Rochat … and I am an Early Christmas Decorator.  

(Ow! If you’re going to throw cranberry sauce at me, take it out of the can first, OK?)

To be fair, this goes against a LOT of my early training. From childhood on, family and employers made it clear that Thanksgiving was the demarcation line that must not be crossed. Even now, my folks deck the halls beautifully, but not until well into December.

So how did we come to violate the Turkey Truce?

I’d love to blame Missy for this, but for once, she’s innocent. Relatively so, anyway. If you’ve met her in this space before, you know that our ward has no fear of blaring out some holiday tunes in the middle of June if the mood strikes her. This year was no exception – but the Veterans Day tree in the window was not her fault.

That started with my wife Heather.

Well, in all honesty, it started with 2021. And more than a bit of 2020 as well.

I think we can all agree that these last two years have been  … what’s the word? Stressful? Frustrating? Flaming dumpsters full of near-apocalyptic wretchedness? (I know, that’s more than one word. Go with me here.) Certainly there have been some amazing moments – any time period where Grumpy Bernie turns into a meme can’t be all bad – but  for the most part, it’s been a slog. Through a swamp. That’s on fire. And filled with bear traps.

Within Chez Rochat itself, this is the year we lost our oldest pet. And our youngest pet. We racked up way too many medical emergencies, even by Heather’s standards. Not to mention … but no, I won’t mention. You’ve got your own tales of family exhaustion and you probably don’t need to be burdened down by mine.

Suffice it to say, there’s been a lot of darkness. And darkness needs light.

So we kindled some.

Two weeks early for the calendar. But just in time for us.

And I know we’ve got company.

It’s a human reflex. Almost every winter holiday I can think of involves kindling lights.  It’s an act that pushes back against the growing night, creating beauty out of shadow. When reflected by snow, the light grows still stronger, reaching out to embrace all who see it.

In a cold time, it’s a promise that we’re still here. That we can still hope.  

That’s no small thing.

Joy, love, peace, hope – those aren’t qualities for just one time of year, to be packed up in a cardboard box when reality returns. They’re survival traits. We pick a time to make them more visible so they’re not forgotten, but they always belong. And in times like this, they’re more essential than ever.

So if this year, giving thanks is mixed with your holiday cheer of choice, I won’t blame you. Quite the opposite.

Let there be lights. And trees. And hearts with the strength and desire to raise spirits. Whatever you do, however you do it … if you’re helping hold back the dark this year, you’re family.

Yes, even the Raiders fans.

Following the Light

“Daddy, look!”

Missy bounced in the passenger seat of the car, eyes aglow. It had to be important. Missy has called me many things since Heather and I became her guardians over seven years ago – “He,” “Frank,” even “Mom” sometimes when Heather’s not in the room – but “Daddy” mostly tends to come out at moments of discovery.

And what a discovery!

Trees glowing with the lines and colors of Dr. Seuss. Lawns stacked with Grinches, with Nativities, with snowmen of every shape and size. Roofs blazing in the night like a multicolored landing strip made for a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, or any UFOs that happened to be passing within 10 light years or so.

Her smile beamed brighter than any of the homes we passed. For Missy, this was the heart of the season – the regular Christmas light run, discovering new homes and new neighborhoods every night, shining with glory in the freezing air.

I smiled, too. And enjoyed. And with a little trepidation, looked to see which of the curving streets might eventually bring us back to a familiar road again.

Like wise men in the East, I could really use a guiding star about now.

***

Longtime friends and readers may remember that I don’t have the best sense of direction. And that may be putting it mildly. In the course of my wanderings over the years, I have wound up following ruts in farmer’s fields, or staring at a Denver-area dead end, or possibly discovering new lands in the name of Spain. I can find “down” without a compass … most of the time … if I’ve left a shoe untied.

Like any long-time Front Ranger, I know the rule of thumb: “The mountains are west.” Like any good 21st-century resident, I know the other rule of thumb: “Google Maps are your friend – except when they aren’t.” None of which helps when it’s too dark to see the peaks, you’re not exactly sure of your current location, and your eager passenger will become an impatient one if you pull over to check your phone.

Besides, on this night, in this place, it didn’t really matter. Tonight wasn’t about the destination. Tonight was about the journey, the traveling, the unexpected wonders ahead. Tonight was about wandering without really knowing what you were looking for, and allowing yourself the excitement of finding more than you expected.

This time of year, that sounds more than a little familiar.

***

From the beginning, Christmas has been about going places you didn’t expect and finding things you never anticipated. Whether the tale is sacred or secular, it’s a season of surprise. Shepherds being startled in the night and called to a manger. Grinches and Scrooges discovering joy and hope in a heart that had grown cold. Charlie Brown finding that just a little bit of love can make the scrawniest of twigs shine brighter than any aluminum Christmas tree.

It’s about breaking expectations. Seeing the world with new eyes. That can be hard to do, and even a little scary, because it means taking roads you don’t know and journeys that might be a little uncomfortable.

Most of us don’t like to do that. We like the familiar. And after a while, we stop seeing it. We go to places without really going through anywhere, exist without really living.

So when the sudden turns come, big or small, it’s easy to panic. But it also may be the first time we truly notice the world around us. And in noticing, wonder. Discover. And learn.

That’s a powerful gift.

So follow the roads. Trust the turns. Find the beauty that you never knew was there. It may take some searching on a cold, dark night. But it could be closer than you think.

Maybe even as close as Missy’s smile.

Strands of Memory

The bare treetop mocked us.

There are a few fundamental laws of the Christmas universe. Decorations will be stored in the last place you look. You always need more Scotch tape. And pre-lit Christmas trees never stay that way. And so, after much cussing and many valiant attempts to replace the fuses (ha!) or plug in old strands preserved by the Ghost of Christmas Decor Past (ha-ha!), we had once again found ourselves buying a supply of electric Christmas cheer long enough to allow Santa Claus to scale the heights of Nakatomi Plaza.

Or to wrap around two-thirds of a typical suburban Christmas tree.

Heather and I stared in frustration at the partially lit plastic pine. And then, inspiration hit. There was still one thing left to try.

Back to the basement. Past the unused bedroom. Back up with a single strand of lights that hadn’t been touched in nearly a year, just enough to complete the puzzle. On they blazed in a burst of – purple and orange?

Heather laughed. “They’re Halloween lights!” she said with a broad smile.

I had to laugh, too. It was incongruous. But somehow, it fit.

Cousin Melanie had not let us down.

***

Those of you who stop by here regularly may remember Mel, our 21-year-old cousin who lived with us before dying unexpectedly in January. Her passing left a hole in our lives that still hasn’t truly healed. It left a lot of memories that still bring a smile when least expected.

And yes, it also left a long strand of off-season holiday mini-lights waiting for their hour on stage.

Mel was a night owl by nature. But she always had to keep a light on after dark, maybe because of the frequent nightmares that she often kept at bay. And so, one day, she had asked if she could borrow a string of unused lights to decorate her room downstairs.

They stayed taped to the walls, one more bit of eclectic post-teenager style, until a few days after she died. In the cleanup, they had been set aside in a cardboard box and mostly forgotten while other, more personal objects and keepsakes had been tended to.

Now they shone forth again.

They would never be mistaken for the green and blue and red of the season. It was completely obvious where the “normal” lights ended and the new ones began. And yet, it belonged. It not only completed the tree, it made a perfect picture of our lives.

Something bright and colorful and proud to be different had entered the scene. The traditional and the unusual came together and made something new and beautiful– and were still undeniably connected.

One tree.

One family.

No matter what.

***

Tradition holds a powerful pull at the holidays. You hear the same songs, tell the same stories, see the same specials on TV. It’s the time when we’re most likely to reach out to familiar faces, or when we most notice the ones that aren’t there anymore.

But for all our efforts, Christmas doesn’t stand still. No more than we do.

Every life that touches our own changes it slightly. Every memory that comes our way shapes us, just a little. And every year, these little blendings make even the most traditional time of the year just a little more our own.

That mixing and melding and reshaping slowly creates an image that might seem strange to anyone else. (Really, what is tradition but an oddity continued?) It’s not uniform, but a mosaic, a unique creation of pieces and splinters that shines with its own perfect beauty.

Even if some of it is a little tearstained.

Thanks, Mel. Thank you for one more Christmas gift, one more unforgettable memory. Unique and beautiful, like yourself.

Whatever happens to the tree next year, this light will never burn out.

Brilliant Decisions

My name is Scott Rochat and I have Decoration Postponement Disorder.

OK, that’s a convenient label to soften the fact that we’ve reached the Martin Luther King weekend and our Christmas tree is still standing tall in the front window in all its decorated, multi-colored glory. All kinds of wonderful excuses could be given – family emergencies, busy schedules, post-Bronco depression – but the fact remains that the First Noel has yet to say the Last Goodbye.

Looking around, though, I’m not exactly alone. Oh, the inflatable Santas in the front yard and reindeer on the roof have mostly gone, but I’ll still turn a corner to find homes proudly lighting the night with strings of color. This has made winter even more exciting for Missy, for whom holiday lights are a MAJOR passion to be pointed out at every turn and indulged in at every opportunity.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that (with apologies to Jerry Seinfeld). In fact, if you visit the right corners of social media, you’ll find a pretty active debate about just when the lights should be taken down and how long is Too Long. There are several distinct camps:

  • Right Away – Come Dec.26, or at most, New Year’s Day, and boom, down they go. These are also the folks with immaculate garages and five years of carefully-stored receipts.
  • Epiphany — Some of us remember that Christmas is 12 days long (yes, the 12 Days of Christmas starts on the 25th), and decide that the decorations don’t need to come down until Epiphany hits on Jan. 6. Normally our own intended goal, this was postponed this year by a cousin’s sudden Jan. 6 appendectomy. (Yes, sometimes the holidays just keep on giving!)
  • Stock Show – In Denver, of course, there’s a grand old tradition that Christmas lights stay up until the end of the National Western Stock Show, which concludes this year on Jan. 21. This has since been enthusiastically adopted by a certain contingent of Coloradans in general. “I’m sorry, hon, but I have to show solidarity with the cowboys. Especially … you know … wossname.”
  • Huh? And sometimes objects at rest just tend to remain at rest. When I was a kid, there was one notable year when the rooftop lights didn’t come down until Easter. Alternatively, this can be a conscious choice – I once knew a Kansas police department that kept its tree up year round, but changed the decorations each month to something appropriate, such as hearts for February, flags for July, or black crepe for another Chiefs playoff loss. (OK, maybe not that last one.)

As you might guess by now, I’m not exactly a zealot on the subject. In fact, in a time of dark nights and dark news, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to keep light shining by any means possible. You could even argue that this time of year, when we remember King’s words and our nation’s struggles toward freedom and equality, is one of the most appropriate times of all:

“…when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”

“Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

Maybe, just maybe, as we keep our rooftops alight, we can remember to do the same for our hearts, our hopes, and our passion for justice.

And if it means enabling my DPD for a few days longer, well, that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

Angels Askew

As I looked at our freshly liberated Christmas tree in its brilliant, slightly scrunched glory, I couldn’t help remembering the long-familiar tale.

“And Lo, the angel of the Lord did look down from the heavens and said unto them … ‘Ouch! Should I not be two inches to the right?’”

Or maybe that’s just us.

You see, in most respects, our tree is pretty traditional. There are the thousand-and-one colored lights on every branch, carefully obscuring the burned-out strands that were built into the tree itself. There’s the 40 years of ornaments that invade every square inch, looking like the Ghost of Christmas Past got mugged in a yard sale. The cute and the memorable merge with the odd and bizarre (“Is that Holly Hobbie’s head?”), all of it arranged so that the wagging tail of Big Blake, the World’s Clumsiest Dog can’t hit anything fragile.

And presiding over all of it, bestowing its graceful presence on everything below, is our tree-topper angel—teetering dangerously forward as though she were about to leap from her place of heavenly glory and into a swimming pool far below. You know, the one at the first motel, where the angels did stay?

The reason for this perilous perch? Well, our home used to belong to Heather’s grandparents, and her English grandmother wanted one that had a Tudor “look.” So there’s a big, beautiful bay window in the front room, just perfect for framing a Christmas tree – and behind it, a series of thick brown beams projecting from the ceiling, one of them hanging above the exact center of the window.

So every year, we have to choose. We can either shift the tree off-center so that it can extend to its full glorious height, while triggering the OCD of every resident and passing driver. Or we can put the tree in its natural spot, where the angel of the Lord is squeezed into submission by a burst of misplaced architectural enthusiasm.

This year, we squeezed. In an odd way, it seemed fitting.

In the musical “1776,” Ben Franklin talked about how revolutions are brought into the world “half improvised and half compromised.” To my mind, it’s even truer of the Christmas season. Beneath the wonder and beauty – and sometimes not far beneath – is a constant tap dance of just making things work. We cover for lost or damaged decorations. We negotiate over whose turn it is to visit for dinner this year. We struggle to find enough hours in the day, dollars in the budget, or sanity in the mind to make everything work. Heck, even the original Christmas story featured a feed box that was pressed into services as a baby bed.

And somehow, we do make it work. Not because it’s picture-perfect. But because it’s ours, brought forth in love and desperation, cobbled together from what we have.

That’s Christmas. That’s family. That’s life.

And despite all the choices and compromises – or maybe even because of them – it often still becomes something wonderful. A bit strange, maybe. But wonderful all the same.

There’s an odd kind of peace in that. A chance to truly “be not afraid” and see things from a more forgiving perspective.

In fact, we may be right on the beam.

Putting In a Good Word

The text from home caught me by surprise. It seems we’d gotten a special gift, and not via UPS or the U.S. Postal Service.

Missy had added a new word to her vocabulary.

“We’re watching Christmas videos,” my wife Heather wrote me, “and the Hallelujah Chorus was on and she sang ‘Hallelujah’ clearly.”

I blinked. And blinked again. And smiled.

For those who are new to this column, Missy is our disabled ward. She’s my age, but can seem much younger, especially since she’s a lady of few words, some of which do double duty. “Book” can refer to our reading time, or to an inquiry about where her purse is. “I wan’ a pop” can mean that she wants a soda from the fridge, or that she thinks it’d be cool to have a fast food night.

Sometimes, when her emotions are high, the words get more numerous and clearer. (The most infamous was when she told her father, after a near-accident on the road, “Damn it, Frank, are you trying to ****ing kill me?”) And in the six and a half years since Heather and I moved in, we’ve noticed how much she really understands and seen some additions to the vocabulary.

But going from the usual words and phrases to “Hallelujah” … well, even for someone who loves Christmas as much as Missy does, that’s a big leap.

I’ll admit, when something like that happens, there’s a temptation to doubt the miracle. The little voice in your head starts whispering “It was a coincidence. You want to hear it. You’re just making assumptions.”

Except … that same night, Missy and I went out on our near-daily Christmas light run. And as we observed the golden trees, and the sparkling roofs, and the Santas dressed in hula skirts, a really sickly-sweet cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” came on the radio.

And as the chorus came up, Missy echoed “Hallelujah.” It was slightly swallowed in the middle, but unmistakable.

Did you know your jaw can get sore from dropping it too many times in one day?

In an odd way, this underlined what I love best about the holiday season – how a seemingly ordinary moment can suddenly become extraordinary.

Snow transforms a landscape you’ve seen a thousand times into something new and amazing.

Lights and decorations turn a row of ordinary homes into something that shatters the winter night and brings smiles or laughter.

And so many stories from so many faiths celebrate the same kind of transformation, whether it’s a seemingly ordinary flask of oil stretching to eight days of devotion, or a seemingly ordinary family that suddenly becomes the start of a message to the world.

Like presents under a tree, the ordinary holds surprises – and we’re usually not the ones who decide when to open them. The paper can fall away and the ribbons loosen at any moment, introducing something we never expected. Sometimes it’s just a moment’s reaction. Sometimes it’s life-changing.

I think we notice it a little more at this time of year. We pay better attention. So much is both new and long-familiar that we can slip out of our usual habits of thinking and see things that we might otherwise miss.

Sure, it’s easy to get too busy, or stressed, or maybe even overwhelmed with memories that hurt more than they cheer. But the moments are still there, whenever we’re ready to meet them. Sometimes even when we’re not ready.

Joy can ambush us from strange corners. It only takes one unexpected moment, and the day is suddenly new, and different, and wonderful.

And to that, I say hallelujah.

Simple Brilliance

Riley’s two-year old face lit up in delight, as brilliant as the Christmas tree in front of it.

“Oh-kay-kay!” she declared, bestowing her highest compliment.

And with that, the slightly worn plastic tree with its strings of carefully untangled colored lights went from “nice” to “magical.”

The march to Christmas had officially begun.

It’s not the first time we’ve had one of our nieces or nephews nearby as the season got underway. Our nephew Gil was born 10 days before Christmas, after all. But it is the first time we’ve been around one of them at an age where they can begin to notice the change around them, and to start getting excited by it.

I’m not saying the rest of us had become Ebenezer Scrooge, in need of a wallop by four spirits and the crutch of Tiny Tim. Heather and I still love the lights, the music, the people who have clearly not attempted to drive since last December. (OK, maybe not that last one so much.)

But for years, we’ve been the magicians as much as the audience. We’ve got a trick to pull off, and by gosh, we’re going to do it right!

Maybe especially when it comes to lights.

My wife Heather comes by her obsession with Christmas tree lights honestly. It was her father who taught her the importance of making a tree “glow from within,” with the strings of lights carefully balanced and arranged. I don’t know if he also taught her the, ah, special incantations used in achieving this effect, or the ritual invocation of “Next year, we’re getting a pre-lit tree!” but they also seem to be a mandatory part of the experience.

And so, it was with mounting horror that she realized string no. 3 was longer and larger than the first two. So were the others. In the chaos of getting everything untangled, we’d plugged in our two “reserve strands” first, the shorter ones used to finish a tree off without holes.

Apparently this is a sin on the level of ordering Fat Tire at a five-star French restaurant.

“Now it’s going to look all weird!”

“Honey … “

“There are gaps in the lights!”

Oh, yes. I had forgotten the gaps. My failure to pay attention to proper spacing on a rare Christmas when I lit the tree had resulted in an immediate re-decoration that year. (I usually figure that throwing a barrage of ornaments into the branches is enough to paper over any errors, like a freshman pulling his bookshelf over a hole in the wall.)

“It’s going to have too many lights on top and not enough on the bottom,” Heather declared, reviewing it with an artists’ eye. “I’d better unplug that last strand.”

As she reached to unwind the string, Riley protested.

Loudly.

Bring the pretty colors down? Even for a few minutes? No way!

We paused.

Which, when you think about it, is what this time of year’s about anyway.

Sure, we’ve collectively made it a race to a brightly-wrapped finish line. But that’s not its true heritage. It’s a time set apart, for expectation, for watching, for joy and love and peace of spirit.

And maybe, just for a little while, to stand in wonder and realize the beauty we’re helping to create.

The tree’s lights are still up, gaps and all. Maybe it’s not perfect. But it is magic. A two-year-old told us so.

The same two-year-old who was pressing lights into the carpet as they were plugged in, watching them “glow from within.”

Oh, boy. We may have another artist coming.

But for now, everything is oh-kay-kay.