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Tripping up the Lights Fantastic

The other night, as we pulled into our friends’ driveway, I marveled at the perfectly lit shrub that stood by their front door. It was completely covered in white lights. Neat, but no obvious rows or lines. Bursting with lights, but not exploding. It looked like magic ice. “Seriously?” I said to Maria as we walked in to her house. “That’s all Mark,” she smiled. “Have you seen the tree?”

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Yep. Upon entering their cavernous living room, there it stood,  captivating. Ten, maybe twelve feet tall, majestically holding its own against their other, more long-term works of art. Tastefully adorned in a perfect symmetry of lights, ribbons, pine cones and red ornaments. With mouth agape, I looked over at Mark. “Restoration Hardware,” he shrugged, admitting that its perfection was aided by the fact that it wasn’t real. “But, yeah. That was my project.”

The world is divided into two camps: those who can string holiday lights artistically and those who never will be able to. People with holiday light flair can also make perfect hospital corners and fold a sweater more perfectly than a Gap employee. They have excellent handwriting and the hems on their garments are never frayed. I can go on all day, so filled with resentment that I fall into the latter category. My mother, however was the former.

Like most families that celebrated Christmas, the tree decorating was a ritual. Bringing the big boxes of ornaments down from the attic, untangling the lights and the glass garland beads, unwrapping each ornament from its tissue paper nest, always coming up short on ornament hooks.

Mom was always in charge of it, and with good reason. She not only strung the lights and draped the garland just so, but she made many of the ornaments. Like the patchwork hostess skirts she sold and the kitchen ceiling she covered, she patch-worked our ornaments.

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Mom’s patchwork ornaments

After she died, the task of tree decorating was put to me. Pete and I  often waited until Christmas eve to finally buy the tree. Once we lugged it home and he secured it into the creaky, rusty jaws-of-death tree stand, I’d unwrap and de-knot, then set about this task that I was sorely inept at. Dad did encourage me,  while also offering up the occasional criticism (“This corner over here is empty…”), But he needed the tree. We all did. We needed the comfort of continuity and tradition. Even if we pushed it, holding off our last-minute decorating deadline further and further each year.

But back to the cans and cannots. Having accepted my cannot status, I’ve decided to focus on my strength: lights. Now that the kids are grown and there is no major need to place presents beneath the tree, we have moved it the porch, where it is dressed with nothing but lights.  I assess it, holding several strings of lights (that work) in my hand. I start at the top, weaving in and out of the branches, slowly circling the tree like a child wrapping a Maypole in slo-mo. It starts out great, but at some point, I get bored. So I  just kind of stuff the remaining lights into the lower branches that will support them. Plugged in, the tree looks like one of the new high-rises going up in our Manhattan neighborhood. While the upper levels are like  PARTY!, the lobby is dark and spooky.

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I’m inclined to blame my mess on impatience. Sure, if I practiced making hospital corners for an hour every day for a month, I could probably master them. But here’s the bigger problem: I don’t care enough. And I’m too lazy, both of which would explain why I never mastered “Gymnopedie” on the piano or became fluent in French or learned how to patch-work Christmas ornaments.

Fortunately, I inherited those ornaments. So, I didn’t inherit her talent for decorating. Her profile and her offbeat humor aren’t exactly consolation prizes.

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Jane was executive beauty director at W Magazine for 16 years. When she is not writing beauty articles, she's likely either hiking with her husband and dog, Remy, or in her kitchen, frauding (new verb) her way around a fancy recipe, a home decoration or a highbrow dinner party conversation of which she knows nothing about. In other words, she nods a lot and googles a lot later.

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