I bought my first string of fairy lights at the Woolworth's in Northampton, Mass., on a solitary trip, a bus ride away from my own college town. I grew up in a lovely/eclectic colonial revival house, in the windows of which we put a single white candle-light each Christmas. Our tree featured a string of big, colorful bulbs. Tiny white lights seemed new, special, mine.
On that same trip, I bought, somewhat sheepishly, some women's magazine or another, telling myself that the cut-out gift tags inside would be Useful for the presents for my family I imagined wrapping at school and flying home to Richmond with. Whether I didn't use them was because I didn't buy presents before leaving, or because I eventually realized that it could be ruinous for the look of wrapped gifts to fly with them, I no longer recall. I think, really, I bought the magazine for a nostalgia for looking at magazines with my mom, especially at Christmas time. There were even a couple she'd saved so we could look at them over and over - and refer to that one that had ALL the good cookie recipes. I remember one one with a sweet cartoon story -- if not by Maurice Sendak, then by someone else with a similar style.
So magazine and lights and other sundries in hand, I felt grow up: I felt like a shopper in "Silver Bells." Nine times out of ten, the verse that begins "city sidewalks," brings Northampton to mind. My new lights hung in our College Street-facing window of Northy Rocky; and they graced the bay window of the room in Abbey. In my memory of my MacGregor single, that bay window is so sunny and dogwood tree-filled, I almost imagine I would have skipped the lights, but I doubt it.
At college, every spring I'd take sweaters to be stored at the dry cleaner's, and I'd pack up books and knicknacks and my fairy lights and flannel sheets and store them in next year's dorm basement. Senior year, even having drawn a rather good number in the housing lottery, I followed the outstanding Noreen to 1837 Hall. The Ramada Inn of dorms needed the help of my fairy lights most of all, and they were up and plugged in most of the year. In December, 1988, they spiffed up my first apartment, a swell place on Park at Strawberry St.
That first strand lasted a surprisingly long time: Mississippi and back, I believe. Maybe it was one of two that hung year-round in the dining room on Mulberry St., making it possible to brighten any gray day, make every party sparkle. I do remember that when it finally stopped working, I thought, Well, that was good long run.
Now I live in the second house I've owned, and for the first time ever I've hung lights outside (in the contorted filbert, visible through the french doors in the family room). They're hand-me-downs from Mom, who decorated outside at the farm where they live now for the parties they threw for several years. I love the way tiny lights make the dark part of the year sparkle, and I love the string of memories they invoke.
(later): Am I in danger of collecting links on Christmas lights? Here's Seth Godin on lights and community.