Four years ago, I spent Christmas in Texas for the first time. Shortly beforehand I’d been driving around in the desert out West, and I have vivid memories of the return journey which, late at night, brought me through Johnson City, the birthplace of Lyndon B. Johnson.
Now, Johnson City is a place that nobody needs to visit before they die. But that night it was spectacular. The entire town was illuminated - streets, buildings, front yards, trees and the County Courthouse were all dazzling in the darkness.
I stopped the car to walk around and was immediately struck by the strangeness of thousands of lights representing icicles, snow, and snowmen in a place where it never snows. In fact, I thought, it probably wasn’t snowing much in Bethlehem when Christ was born either. I could be wrong - the climate has changed a few times over the last 2,000 years, so maybe it was chillier in the Holy Land back then. Nevertheless, given the Eastern origins of Christianity, luminous representations of cacti and fig trees might be more appropriate this time of year.
Since it was my first American Christmas I spent a lot of time driving around looking at the lights, amazed at the effort people put into decorating their homes and yards with enormous glow-in-the-dark Santas and polar bears. Growing up in Scotland, nobody had bothered to do anything like this. In Moscow, Luzhkov always made sure the city streets were festooned with lights for New Year (December 25th being just another work day) but since nobody has a yard, the individual touch was missing.
In Austin, the city fathers also put up some “official” decorations, a “Trail of Lights” in a park close to downtown. Alas, I got there after 9pm to find the illuminated trail switched off in order to save electricity (and thus the planet) - an exceptionally fatuous expression of environmentalism. So I drove north to a street populated by hippies who were famous for their “alternative” trail. They had some multicolored peace signs, and effigies of Dick Cheney, George Bush and a few placards about “war crimes.” Tedious stuff - and a chilling display of the terrible damage drugs do to one’s sense of aesthetics.
Recently meanwhile I was driving through a neighborhood populated by Dell computer executives and wealthy retirees when I noticed a sign announcing a Christmas decorating service for rich people. Why erect a giant inflatable Frosty the Snowman when you can pay someone to do it for you? Such is the genius of American capitalism - business opportunities are everywhere!
This year, for the first time, I have a yard of my own. Even so, I felt little urge to plant a dancing polar bear in front of my house. I decided to leave that sort of thing to my neighbors, who were more than happy to oblige.
For instance my neighbor on the left was so excited by Christmas that he put a tree and some wooden elves out front immediately after Thanksgiving. But it’s bad taste to decorate for Christmas during November, so I can’t say I approved. His neighbor waited until December 1st to erect a Nativity scene so tasteful it doesn’t even glow in the dark (although the Three Wise Men do look a little like the dancing robots Kraftwerk take on tour). My neighbor on the right went all out, erecting electric candy canes, fake pine trees, a red “STOP” sign for Santa and even installing some speakers that pipe out Christmas carols when it gets dark. Finally, she stuck a cross on her roof, to remind us of the end of the story.
But my favorite display was put up by my neighbors across the street. There’s a life-size robot Santa who sits in a chair, lurched forward as if drunk, waving at nobody in particular. At night he glows and it looks as though he’s been chained to the chair and is waving for help. On Santa’s left is an inflatable reindeer. On his right is an inflatable manger scene, complete with Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus.
The day my neighbors erected this tableau I was sitting outside, watching the world go by. They were both ill, they explained, but wanted to fill their home with that special seasonal glow. By the end of the first day however all the air had gone out of the Nativity scene. A few hours later it was pumped up again; a few hours after that and it was lying deflated on the grass again.
And so it has continued every day of December. A slow puncture, perhaps? No matter: my neighbors struggle valiantly on, re-establishing their decorative centerpiece each evening. And so, courtesy of a perpetually re-inflating Holy Family, the spirit of Christmas survives.
What does the world look like to a man stranded deep in the heart of Texas? Each week, Austin- based author Daniel Kalder writes about America, Russia and beyond from his position as an outsider inside the woefully - and willfully - misunderstood state he calls “the third cultural and economic center of the USA.”
Daniel Kalder is a Scotsman who lived in Russia for a decade before moving to Texas in 2006. He is the author of two books, Lost Cosmonaut (2006) and Strange Telescopes (2008), and writes for numerous publications including The Guardian, The Observer, The Times of London and The Spectator.