GROWING UP ON THE VINE: Escape to Christmas by Ivey Chambers

GROWING UP ON THE VINE: Escape to Christmas

In the 1980s, a good Christmas would yield a pair of Calvin Klein jeans, Madonna cassette tapes or a video tape recorder, for the very privileged. For those of us not so fortunate, we received Toughskin jeans, cassette tapes by one-hit-wonders and 8 track tape players — in that order. It was all about the yield after all, ”Greed was Good” and we were teenagers. My best friend, Fay and I were no different than any other 1980s teenager. We were the only girls in our families and we felt so put upon that our holiday chores included decorating the tree, baking Christmas cookies and wrapping presents. Present wrapping was the worst and after about an hour of it, one of us would call the other on our private phone line (ok, we were a wee bit privileged,) to see if the other wanted to go out and see the Christmas lights.

Taking a drive to look at Christmas lights was the most palatable excuse for our parents to let us out of the house AND take one of their cars. The first stop would be 7-11 to pick up supplies, which were generally cherry Slurpees, gummy bears, ice cream cookies or Nutty Buddies — cold foods that were perfect for a cold December, Washington, DC evening. At 7-ll we would look around for anyone we knew, then head back to the car to start the evening.

Once the supplies were procured, we would have to do an initial swing by of the house where Fay’s boyfriend or ex boyfriend lived (depending on the year) to see if he were home and gauge any activity in the house. I think today they call it stalking, but whatever information those drive by’s garnered, it was never significant. I think Fay’s wish more than anything, was to somehow bump into him and strike up a conversation. It never happened, so we ticked that off our list and continued on to the nearby predominantly Jewish neighborhood that would decorate for the holidays in beautiful blue a white lights.

Our particular neighborhood was a bit dull when it came to outdoor decoration. I lived in a townhouse community whose condo board frowned upon ostentatious displays of festiveness. My mother would put a single, white electric candle in each front windows and a fresh fir wreath with a red bow on the front door. Later in my teens, my mother acquired two concrete hounds to put on either side of the front door and at Christmas, she would put matching wreaths around their necks. Fay’s family decorated with big colored lights, which flew in the face of the small white lights with a steady glow that were the neighborhood’s illumination of choice. Although our neighborhood was dull, we know one that wasn’t, the aptly named Hollywood Avenue.

Hollywood Avenue wasn’t an avenue, but it was “Hollywood.” It was in a neighborhood that seemed to have a spoken or unspoken competition amongst its residents to out do the other when it came to holiday decorations. Colored lights were everywhere — old school were the big bulbs, more contemporary were the small lights. But it wasn’t the lights or the color — it was the non-stop flashing that made this place stand out. I would prefer to use the words blinking or twinkling, but in reality, it was full on flashing, sometimes indiscriminately and sometimes in a pattern and sometimes with a disco strobe effect. No tree, shrub, mail box or railing was safe from a holiday splash. Aside from the more religious creche scenes, many life sized, there were inflatable Santas, elves, reindeer and brightly wrapped present displays. If we spotted Santas’ with sleighs being drawn by reindeer on roofs, or a stuck Santa in a chimney, Fay and I would let out a whoop, turn up the radio and knock back enough Slurpee to give us a temporary brain freeze. We would laugh, let out a sigh and do it all over again.

Eventually, people would go to bed and turn off the lights, we would run out of provisions and the clock would tell us it was time to go home. We would wend our way back through the streets now bathed in the yellow glow of the street lamps, listening to Band-Aid’s, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” One would drop the other off, we would hug goodbye and go back to the holiday chores that we had left unfinished.

At that time, Fay and I were snarky and sarcastic teenagers. We wielded a caustic humor above our years and above our understanding of the damage that it could cause, but in that car at that moment, we could be ourselves. We talked about everything — her mother’s struggle with breast cancer, her brother’s best friend that we used to ridicule in elementary school — who was now looking quite different after his tricycle ride through puberty. We shared our stories of aging grandparents, aging dogs and my family’s constant moving. We both knew on some level even then, that going out to look at the Christmas lights was really just an excuse to escape and talk, to reconnect and bond. These are the times that people discount. Driving around looking at Christmas lights was not the end game, it was merely a means to strengthen a lasting friendship.


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