Driving around looking at holiday lights used to be a spectator sport for my family.
This was in the mid 1960s, when I was a toddler. We all piled into the station wagon for a cruise through darkened neighborhoods looking for houses swirled in effervescent lights or lawns that served as runways for shining reindeer sleighs.
My grandparents rode in the back seat, while I stood on the front seat between my parents in my pajamas and robe.
Recently, my father recalled that I would shout with unbridled enthusiasm at each display of winking colored bulbs and said that the memory of it still makes him smile.
I still view the millions of lights that blanket our city for a few fleeting December weeks with the same childhood joy, finding them a comforting source of light during the waning days before the winter solstice.
As the first holiday lights flicker on in my neighborhood this year, I find myself pausing to admire the cascades of icicle lights, electric candles glowing in front windows and strands of shimmering white bulbs strung around shade trees like pearls. I can't help but wonder what it is about seasonal lights that still enthrall us.
On a superficial level, they are a lot like a heavy snowfall - a great equalizer that can briefly transform the dowdiest little house into a glimmering gingerbread cottage or turn the ugliest tract mansion into a Nordic palace of twinkling lights.
More deeply, though, I think, they bring light to a dark world.
We have so much to be serious about these days - war, terrorism, the economy, health issues, jobs, hurricanes, global warming - that lighting up our yards in December feels good, familiar and even protective.
We swirl our trees with lights until they look like they have just reached out and caught an armload of fresh snow. We light angels, candy canes, Santas, snowmen, palm trees and even dog houses. Front porches glow like revival tents, front walks like game boards from Candyland. The more ambitious outdoor decorators shower their yards with tens of thousands of colored lights, computerize the action and even broadcast their own music. After all, what evil can possibly come to a place festooned with illuminated inflatable snow globes or all-weather snowmen in lawn chairs?
Each year, when I visit Tallahassee during the holiday season, I like to drive through Dorothy Ovens Park off Thomasville Road. The park consists of a small, charming home and modest tract of property and is sprinkled, sweetly and simply, with a tasteful palette of lights. One year, my sister and I got out of the car and walked the grounds, literally breathing in the glow and the transience of it, knowing it will all be gone shortly after New Year's Day.
My neighbors in the condo above me strung a cascade of white lights and balls over their entrance. I came home at dusk to see their handiwork as well as my own Christmas tree glowing in my front window. It made me smile.
Almost as much as it did when I used to ride standing up between my parents on those long-ago family drives to look at Christmas lights.
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.