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Lighting the lights
December 13, 2012 - Rick Chatenever
Chevy Chase becomes my patron saint every year about now.
I think of him in his "Christmas Vacation" Santa suit, all aglow thanks to that startling 110-volt jolt known to many of us up-on-the-roof lighting designers in this festive season.
Being up on the roof in Kula, the island stretches out below you in gauzy gold December light, an instant Maui Christmas card. Ungnarling the tangled strands and stringing them together- on the tree, on the house, basically on anything that doesn't move - is my version of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
Every family has its own holiday traditions but none quite like my family.
Chatenever was a Russian Jewish name, formally given to my grandfather on Ellis Island when he and his brothers came to America just after the turn of last century. My mother and father grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, where they met, fell in love and got married.
During World War II, my father helped develop the atomic bomb in the top-secret Manhattan Project. My mother was more artistic, political, free spirited. I was born in Brooklyn; New York was our world, all that we knew, right up to 1950, when we moved to our new home, Norman, Okla.
I was 4 years old. Oklahoma was about as far as you could get from Brooklyn, no matter how you measured. My father was a professor at the University of Oklahoma, which explains my irrational exuberance, to this day, every time I hear "Boomer Sooner," the college's fight song.
A few years later, a month before Christmas when I was 6, my mother died from complications giving birth to my new twin brother and sister.
That was a lot to process for a 6-year-old. I remember that when my dad, who never remarried, first brought his three young children back home during the holiday season, one of our neighbors had left a big cardboard Santa on our porch.
Bible-belt Oklahoma wasn't exactly into Hanukkah. My dad wasn't a religious man, but a scientist; he worked with what was available. We made do. The next year, I was cast as Joseph in our class Christmas pageant. My Brooklyn accent hadn't quite morphed into an Oklahoma drawl as I spoke of the Baby Cheesus.
I loved Christmas. I liked the the story, the carols, the jolly bustle, the food, but mostly, of course, the presents.
Over the decades, my inner Scrooge has taken over on the subject of presents, or commercialization in general. But I'm still for comfort and joy at all costs.
Ironically, the holidays have provided a rich vein of happiness in my true religion - the movies.
"It's a Wonderful Life" always gets trotted out in December. The classic "A Christmas Story" is seeing new life as a Broadway musical. And Wikipedia yields screen after screen of titles - from lovable reindeer to Bad Santas - under the heading of Christmas movies.
My latest favorite is "Love Actually." (Note to self: Remember this for last-minute shopping.)
A new holiday screen tradition is "CNN Heroes." On the cable channel more used to politics, wars and disasters, it's inspiring to watch Anderson Cooper, a hero in his own right, focus the media spotlight on common people finding the courage, ingenuity and the means to reshape the world with such uncommon compassion.
Every year I gingerly climb down from the roof, flip the switch, and enjoy the glow. Viewed from the street, our lights have a Zen motif, tiny bursts of color in the inky darkness, doing their sparkly dance behind swaying areca fronds.
The holidays mark miracles, in one faith or another. But no matter what tradition you observe - ornately ritualistic or as eccentric as your in-laws - at heart they're all the same. They're celebrations of goodness, wherever we can find it, however we can create it.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org
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