A few nights before Christmas my hardy family decided to do the Christmas Lights stroll in Eugene and Springfield Townscape Walks. The evenings had been chilly – low 30s, dipping down into the high 20s – but we bundled up and swung by Starbucks on our way to the neighborhood to get festive hot drinks that we could clutch while wandering the streets.
Every December in Los Angeles, we’d spend at least a night or two getting out to view seasonal decorations of all shapes, sizes, and persuasions, from the ridiculously overblown to the minimal, the religious and the trendy to the self-consciously tasteful. Sometimes we’d venture into the neighborhood hills on foot. Other times we’d pile in the car and drive to nearby communities known for lighting up the streets. For a few years in the Aughts, our favorite event was the old Griffith Park holiday display with racks of lights from the Eisenhower Administration arranged along the edge of the golf course. Economic woes shut it down in 2009; a modified version came back as the Zoo Lights in 2014.
Roxy loved these outings from an early age, and Jon and I certainly haven’t outgrown them. The expeditions offer a chance to slow down and look at scenes we’d normally be dashing by, at a time of the year famous for its dashing from this to that. Gazing at lights, baubles and scenes rendered in plastic or nylon also sets the table for a meandering, slow-roll of conversation. Here’s what I like. What about you?
The Eugene scene, which looked to be in full swing in spite of the pandemic, felt both familiar and distinctly Eugene. We sat in actual traffic approaching the neighborhood on Lakeview Drive and quickly parked once we came to the beginning of the walk, on Northridge Way, per the guide’s hand-drawn map.
As we got out of the car, zipped up our coats, pulled hats over ears and adjusted fingerless gloves, a bumper-to-bumper parade of cars, gi-normous pickups, SUVs, and vans from local senior centers crept by. Many of the vehicles had their windows down revealing a row of spectators in the backseat. Others had windows up with eager faces smushed against the glass.
We spent the next hour strolling down sidewalks, criss-crossing narrow, busy streets and trying to physically distance from other families out enjoying the display. A few folks were as bundled up as we were; others wore blankets as capes, and still others had on pompom hats but otherwise seemed immune to the cold.
The lights, in a word, glittered! They sparkled, they pulsed, they dripped like icicles. Several houses blared music from speakers tucked in windows, the tunes blinking in time with the lights hanging from the eaves. Other houses were all about the blow-ups, especially the air-puffed Santas: Santas in station wagons, Santas in sleighs, Santas in Hawaiian gear lounging beneath turgid palm trees. There were Spongebobs, Doras, Olafs and Jack Skellington … a pop culture mishmash from the last 25 years tacked down on still-green lawns and affixed to rooftops.
“Oooo, can we stop?” Roxy yelled every few minutes, planting herself in the middle of the sidewalk to take photos as we waited by the curb. “Would you take a picture of me here?” One of us would gamely say yes, even though our photo-taking efforts are typically not up to a 2021 teenager’s standards. “Could you do that again, but better?”
Rounding a curve about midway through the walk, I pulled Jon’s sleeve and pointed. “Wait, is that a Black Santa?” We approached the cheerily lit house and yes, sure enough, there was a Santa of color waving from the driveway, while orange Happy Kwanzaa banners framed the front door. We clapped and waved, the way we’d do in the Before Times, at movie theaters, as if the actors and makeup artists themselves were in our midst.
Our hot drinks were long since drunk and the cold was starting to seep into our layers. “Where are we?” Roxy said, as we strolled down a mostly dark street. I showed her our approximate spot on the map. She nodded, smiled and announced, “My feet hurt.”
“Well, let’s speed up and get back to the car,” I urged, grabbing Jon’s hand. “Fine by me,” he said amiably, leading me into the street where it was easier to walk after the uneven sidewalk. Each time we spoke, we could see our breath.
Decorations got bigger and bigger as we made our way up and along the final streets: Cheryl, Park Grove, Parkview. At one magnificent house – a veritable estate I remembered from our walks before Halloween – a glowing, 10-foot-tall something hovered near the edge of the lawn.
“What is that?” I asked, pointing. Roxy sped by us, took one look and then yelled over her shoulder, “Rudolph, of course!”
I surveyed the dapper, ribbon-bedecked creature with its satisfied grin and fabulous eyeliner. And black nose?
“He’s quite fabulous,” I said, thinking maybe Rudolph had moved on from the loud lightbulb snout in favor of something a bit more modern and ready for the club.
Roxy continued to take photo after photo as we walked the final few blocks of Lakeview back to the car. We passed a young man in front of a house selling popcorn from a vintage looking metal cart. People ahead of us on the sidewalk stopped to buy a bag; then a car pulled up and two girls jumped out waving a bill and yelling “Yay!”
I shivered in my coat, but took a deep breath and happily scrunched deeper into my wooly scarf. The scene around us felt festive, joyful and, maybe best of all, beautifully normal. Sure, we were wearing masks and there was still the odd car that would creep by with a noxious bumper sticker, but still, this was progress … and community … and Christmas … and Kwanzaa … and healing. Right there under the stars in Eugene.