Afternoon Shift

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A daily conversation about news, culture and ideas.

Nov. 16, 2012

They are putting up the stands and the barricades today, making ready for the one million people, give or take, coming to watch tomorrow the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival parade make its way down Michigan Avenue.

Think back, way back and imagine the delight that must have been felt by the fur-clad gang huddled in some cave on the night that one of their buddies walked in holding a burning torch and said, more or less, "Hey, everybody, look at this! I call it light."

So it has been ever since—light as the answer to the ancient need to dispel the fears that lurk in darkness and bring hopefulness into the bleakness that is winter. For centuries, light was used by various cultures and religions in their rites and festivals. Then Americans and their Christmas celebrations came along.

Before Thomas Edison invented the filament lamp in 1879; light meant fire and fire meant danger: Those who decorated their trees with candles risked a very incendiary Christmas. Though lights in many styles were being manufactured by the 1880s, they were so expensive as to be out of the reach of all but the wealthy. Even after that most dour of our presidents, Calvin Coolidge, turned on the lights of the first national Christmas tree on the South Lawn of the White House in 1923, few citizens took to decorating their homes, or even their trees, with lights.

But by the '50s, with suburban homes and lawns providing plenty of room but also large areas of darkness, holiday lights began to appear on houses and yards in ever-growing numbers and ever more creative designs, soon to be embellished and sometimes overwhelmed by a sort of Christ-meets-Rudolph weirdness.

Most city folk lacked large canvases for their holiday handiwork, but that didn't stop designers Joe Kreis and George Silvestri. One day in 1959 they took strings of delicate little lights that Silvestri had discovered in Italy and put them on the branches of otherwise barren elm trees near the corner of Michigan and Erie.

Michigan Avenue will tomorrow be ablaze with a million of those little lights, give or take. Some people complain that this sort of flashy bash is yet another example of the crass commercialization of the holidays. Others will tell you the more lights-and Disney characters-the merrier.

Though the most outlandish displays—and my-tree-is-brighter-than-your-tree competitiveness—add fuel to the arguments of those who deplore decorations as yet another example of the corruption of Christmas, most resist the call to excess.

We are no longer, most of us, living in caves, and so we know that winter eventually will move to spring, the darkness to dawn.

Let me ask you…isn’t it wonderful to be driving and turn down a street you’ve never been on before and then see a light, a decoration on a lawn or in a window.

What does it tell me?

It tells me that there is hope in the world.