Twenty years ago, I wrote, and published, “Electric Christmas” in Baltimore’s Child. It was my first sold piece as a freelance writer, and it kicked off a career in submitting my original work to share with the world.
Now, 20 years later, we are still taking rides during the holidays to look at your lights. But instead of my daughter in the back seat, it’s my grandson – Holland’s beautiful son. The years have passed quickly, but the traditions I wrote about 20 years ago continue on. Now he is the one sharing his “wow’s” from the back seat as we all marvel at the timeless beauty of Christmas and family traditions.
I thank each and every one of you for providing your light shows, your celebrations of reds, greens, and whites, for all of us to enjoy. You’ve proven, once again, that no pandemic, no tragedy, will ever stop the joyful and spiritual expressions of the holidays, a spirit borne deep within the true core of who we are as human beings.
And now, I share with you, the unedited, published essay, “Electric Christmas.”
Electric Christmas, by Rus VanWestervelt (2000, originally published in Baltimore’s Child)
It is the last Friday in November, just after our dinner of leftovers and well after sunset. We leave the house with food still on our plates, lights left on. We have little time left.
“Hurry,” I say to them. “Into the car! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Did I remember the tapes? Oh no! Don’t tell me I forgot the tapes!” My wife double-checks our daughter’s booster seat belts, then double-pats her coat pocket with confidence.
“I have both of them, right here. Let’s go.”
Always a step ahead of me; thank goodness!
She slides into the seat next to Holland Grace’s booster, shuts the door tightly, and straps herself in. I turn over the motor and adjust the rearview mirror. My wife and I lock eyes.
She nods, and Holland Grace confirms our status. “Let’s Go, Daddy!”
I ease out of the driveway, synchronously getting a tape in handoff from my wife and inserting it into the player. The leader tape seems interminable.
“Daddy? Time yet?”
Just then, the leader ends, and Bing Crosby’s silky voice stills the air.
“I’m dreaming, of a White Christ-mas….”
A chorus of sighs fills the car, and we are on our way.
No, we’re not the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing our homeland; we’re just a Baltimore family continuing our own holiday tradition, taking to the streets and looking for beautiful displays of lights and seasonal celebrations while our daughter “oohs” and “aahs” as we pass by your creations.
When I was just a bit older than Holland Grace, who is now four, I would come downstairs from my bedroom long before daybreak replaced the streetlights in Towson, and I would wake my sister¾six years my elder
¾¾with a gentle nudge and a flashlight pointed in her eyes.
“Cindy, are you awake?”
“No,” she’d grumble. “I’m sound asleep. Now leave me alone before I kill you in my dream.”
“But it’s time for Christmas,” I’d whisper, nudging her again, then peeling up an exposed eyelid and shining in a beam of light in a desperate attempt to wake her.
“No,” she’d say. “It’s time to turn off the flashlight.”
“Then you’ll get up?”
“If it means you’ll stop blinding me.”
“Cindy, it’s Christmas!”
With that said, I’d run down the hall, plug in the tree lights, and kneel before the miracle.
“Wow,” I’d whisper. This was the most magical of moments, sitting alone with that illuminated tree and the multicolored wrappings, enveloped in a darkness that sealed the spirit of Christmas all around me. I could not have felt warmer, fuller of that magic.
My memory was not strengthened by what was in those boxes wrapped in the multicolored paper. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name you more than three or four toys I received in all of those childhood Christmas mornings. What I do remember is that first smell of brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the pine cones on the tree; the rustling of wrapping paper as Dad finished wrapping a few last gifts; Cindy and I touching each package, shaking them gently and deciding which we’d open first and which seemed mysterious enough to open last; our dog Toby sniffing out his own stocking filled with puppy crackers. These memories of Christmas mornings never seemed to change because this was our tradition.
Years may pass, but traditions stand the test of time. One Christmas, my sister gave me a game called “Operation,” and we thought we were on the cutting edge of space-age technology. This year, I’d like to finally return the favor and give her a virtual surgery game that puts the scalpel in your hand and lets you know if you’ve removed the wrong organ and have sent the patient into V fib. Not that there’s anything wrong with this change in what’s under the tree. We were in as much awe with an electronic board game as we are now with a virtual computer game. But let’s face it. Gifts break, small parts disappear, and the novelty loses its luster after the lights have been taken down and the tree has been tossed on the corner for recycling.
Traditions don’t break down or lose their parts or dull over time. That’s what makes them traditions, and they end up being the greatest gifts we can pass along to our children.
When I knelt down before that great, plastic, flame-retardant tree as a child on Christmas morning, I wasn’t thinking too consciously about what it all meant. I was too overwhelmed. Rather, I thought nothing but felt everything. It was in me, radiating as much inside as outside, an electric glow which would remain forever that, someday, I would share with my own family.
As adults, we all share these memories with the ones we love. We sit over a cup of coffee or we lie in bed a few minutes longer in the morning and ask what Christmas was like as a kid. He might say it was the memory of feeling a bit older with his dad when they would go to cut down a tree, always on the second Sunday in December. She might say it was trying to stay up all night with her older brother every Christmas Eve to hear Santa rustling through his sack downstairs and drinking the soured milk that had been sitting out for hours.
It’s that electric glow that we remember, a tradition that our parents and family either continued or created for us in childhood.
I adjust the mirror in the car to look at my daughter, eyes wide open, a finger touching the window as she points out another display to her mom. “Bee-Youtiful!” she says, a duet with Crosby, both of them crooning in the back seat.
So, this is our tradition. Every night following Thanksgiving, we take a drive to look at the lights that all of you string up around your trees, your houses, your lamp posts. We look at the brilliant displays of candy canes and holly bushes and snowmen, and then we’ll head down to Baltimore’s own 34th Street, where miracles and holiday spirits (not to mention electric bills) could never be greater.
And as each night’s route becomes longer and more fulfilling than the previous evening’s drive, we hear from the back seat of our car—over and over again—that unmistakably wondrous whisper of a child experiencing yet another magical discovery, the sound of a child beaming electric inside and out, the sound from which traditions are born.