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Those Festive Lights

Strings of colored bulbs, though merry and bright, present difficulties

A WORD about Christmas tree lights. But it's after Christmas, I hear you cry.

That, however, is just it. This is the only safe time for balanced assessment. If I said what I am about to say before Christmas, if I were to cast aspersions on the annual extravaganza, it would doubtless bring down on me dire accusations of Scroogism and wet-blanketing. So it must be said and done off-season.

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Here goes: Christmas tree lights are a horrendous, stupendous, mind-bendous invention, without which I am firmly persuaded the universe would be a nicer and definitely sweeter place. It may strike the reader that I have an unreasoning dislike of something that gives innocent pleasure to trillions. So don't mistake. I like the lights, as such. In fact, I love them.

Let me convince you. We had some colored lights when I was a child that had colors you don't see nowadays. The blues were so rare and deeply opaque, so magical and gelatinously truly blue that the burning filament within scarcely managed to escape visibly. Only a completely darkened drawing room made it possible to really see that blue: the blue of intense dreams.

The yellow and the orange were deliciously the color and translucency of Rowntrees Fruit Gums, and for all I know may well have tasted similarly citric if licked. The red was thick and heavy and evinced regal mystique; the green ... was one of those greens you see if you close your eyes and think ``Green!''

These lights were meant to be approximately flame shaped, but were more like small fruit. They were wonderful, had a distinct kind of hot smell when lit, and are now inextricably connected in my memory corridors with the spiky aroma of the tree itself and with a marvellous collection of old-fashioned tree decorations which it became my entirely pleasurable childhood duty to hang on the tree each year: sugary balls, with shells thinner than eggs, suspended in gold wire-mesh; a yellow glass canary in a glass cage; papier-m^ach'e bullfinches that clipped on the branches; thin, limp strands of tinsel (for icicles), astonishingly weighty by today's standards (what were they made of, shredded lead?).

No lights I've come across since have been close to those childhood ones. And it must be said that not only were they unforgettable in color, they were also reliable. They were made by a manufacturer who saw them as a valuable, once-in-a-lifetime purchase. Every year I'd unbox them without any doubt that they would instantly light. The wires between the bulbs were sturdily made, the screw-in sockets were crafted with care and precision of durable metal, the glass of the bulbs was rock solid, the filaments immovable and shock proof.

Which is the point, of course. Today I actually dread the imminence of the festive season because I know that once again, I shall be locked in deadly conflict with the Christmas lights. We have several sets - well, several hundred, if you count the bulbs: little colored lights, programmed with mind-boggling ingenuity to flash on and off in any number of sequences; a set of white twinklers; and an array of little white sparkles.

All of these lights, in their different ways, are the source of tribulation and anxiety. They are entirely unpredictable. They can cease working, either altogether, or in sporadic, incomprehensible groupings of seven or 15 or 26.

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Europe a few years back did not seem to have discovered the little white lights for outdoor use. We started out by importing them from unsuspecting friends in the United States. These required voltage transformers. With some strings of lights, things are so engineered that if one goes out, the others stay lit. Not these. One burns out, they all go out.

Many's the time I have stood shivering and drenched trying to find out which nasty little bulb is the guilty party. I needn't explain the mathematical enormity of the problem of trying out 100 little bulbs to find one dud. And these bulbs are the push-in type: You shove hard. They snap, or twist, or break, or shatter. You run out of spares. The stores are shut for the holidays.

Then, finally, three winters ago, a blow: Our neighbor appeared on the scene with his portable radio. ``Whenever your lights are on,'' he observed, ``I can't hear my music.''

``It's only about 10 days,'' I said, ``and only at night.''

``But I like listening to my music for 10 days at night,'' he not entirely unreasonably replied.

That was when we discovered that the Germans had started making the little white lights. And the transformer they supplied did not interfere with radios. So we ditched American lights and settled for Deutschland uber alles. I assumed my troubles were over.

But between Christmas '88 and Christmas '89 the two sets of German lights, 40 bulbs a set, had rested untouched in the basement. When plugged in, they had only 11 bulbs that lit. I threw the lot in the trash bin. Then I took them out again and drove to the garden centre from which we had unwittingly bought them a year before.

There we complained, and bought two more sets, and received promises of recompense and goodwill.

We waited for a calm, dry December night to put the lights on the outside tree. None came, so we put them up on a bitter, pouring, blasterous December night. Every bulb had shone while still boxed. Now two didn't. Next morning five didn't. By the next night eight had gone.

I reached for the spares - only three per set. A total of three of these spares turned out to be nonoperational. I drove back to the garden centre, and they - amid protestations of recompense and goodwill to all men and in particular us - sold us more bulbs from the only set they had left.

Well - they lit. And they stayed lit. They were, I willingly admit, a delight. Everybody who passed admired. We admired.

Then Christmas was over. It's a quick thing. I waited for a calm dry January night to take them off the tree. So I took them off in February.

Too late. The latest wind-storm had torn through them with distastrous effect. Wires broken, bulbs shattered, little fragments of German engineering found in different parts of the garden. I simply dare not plug them in to see what happens. I know, anyway. Only nine will light up. If I'm fortunate.

Should I really feel merry and bright? Should I?

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