Kathy and I are driving home and we pass a house ablaze with Christmas lights. The joint is lit up like a UFO in a B-grade sci fi movie.
Kathy starts singing, the tune eerily reminiscent of the dreidel song.
“It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas
It’s Christmas in Pagosa Springs
And when they turn the lights on
Kathy starts to sing.”
Every house we pass with a Christmas light display, Kathy sings her song. She is very proud of herself. Soon, if she spots lights anywhere, even across the valley on the slope of a distant hillside, she sings.
She’s in a pretty darned good mood. Giddy with holiday spirit, one might say
Too giddy, if you ask me.
The lights get me riled up, remind me of nasty times, long ago. Houses decorated with holiday light displays precipitate a foul mood in me; I get irritated, not giddy.
It’s my cousin J.R.’s fault.
What was the word that was popular back then, back in the early ’60s?
My cousin J.R. was a fink. An uber-fink, if you will. Every family has one. If you can’t remember your family fink, he (or she) was you.
J.R. did everything just as the adults wanted. He was the prototype “good kid” — never got in trouble, never did anything risky or suspicious, snitched on wrongdoers to the assistant principal. Never got drunk and barfed on someone in the receiving line at Cotillion. The brown nose was elected head boy at his school; he was an honor roll student and joined every club. He was a member of the Sea Scouts — in Denver, Colorado!
Chubby, myopic and ADD-wracked Karl was the polar opposite of what every adult desired, thus J.R. was problematic to me, a persistent annoyance.
But never more so than around the Christmas holiday.
The City of Denver held a Christmas lighting contest every year and all the geeks in town would engage in a ferocious competition to see who could produce the gaudiest display. If there was ever an environmentally unfriendly, aesthetically abusive event, this was it: the garish lights used enough electricity in one night to power Switzerland for a month.
The contestants were serious, and none was more serious than J.R. He was a goal-oriented kind of guy (something I never fully understood).
He started his house lighting project in mid summer and, by December, when the contest period began, he was ready to throw the switch for the preview.
And family members had to witness the event. Like it or not.
When J.R. threw the switch, an area ten square city blocks in size was illuminated with a blast of light equal to that of a nuclear explosion.
“Ooooooh. Aaaaah. Ooooooh, that is so wonderful. Don’t you agree, Karl? Isn’t that the most spectacular thing you’ve ever seen? Isn’t J.R. wonderful.”
No. He’s an ass-kissing fink, now that you mention it.
You can only imagine the flurry of J.R.-spawned glee when, one year, he won the city contest. Numero Uno among all the geeks. It was like the fink won the Nobel Prize. I’m surprised the family didn’t make a laurel wreath for him and parade him through the streets, borne like a conquering general on the backs of the hapless contest losers.
Suffice it to say, I was miffed. My third-place science fair project later that winter ——“Feeding Habits of Common Colorado Birds””— the one for which I spent six weeks (off and on) examining the contents of birds’ stomachs, barely drew a note from the adult chorus. Everyone was still atwitter about J.R.’s Christmas light display.
I had enough. I determined I would produce an entry for the next year’s contest. An entry that would burn the retinas and the souls of all who beheld it. An entry that would live in the annals of the City and County of Denver Christmas Home Lighting Contest … forever!
The uber-fink would finally get a taste of his own medicine.
My first problem: with my ferocious case of ADD, I immediately forgot about my vow and failed to remember it until Thanksgiving when, of course, everyone started talking about J.R.’s upcoming effort. I knew there was something I was supposed to do, but I was so busy shooting hockey pucks at the garage wall, roaming the alleys in search of treasure and watching Julia Child on TV that I never gave the lighting contest a second thought.
Then, all of a sudden, I was up to my eardrums in endless chatter about the contest and whether the family’s pride would be refueled by my cousin, the fink.
Could he repeat as champ? What incredible things did he have in store? Do you know he’s been working on his design since last summer?
I chimed in: “You know, I think I am going to decorate the house and enter the contest.”
“Yeah, that’s a great idea, Karl. I wonder if J.R. is going to have that searchlight on the top of his house again this year. I’m surprised the air force didn’t complain. Oh, that J.R.”
I set to work. I drew crude sketches of the exterior of our house, and I set to planning a mindboggling display. For starters, I decided to reproduce entire passages from Dickens’’“A Christmas Carol” above the porch, in sparkling light.
Not bad, eh?
Then I had plans to create moving papier maché elfin figures— each figure created in the style of those medieval artisans tasked with producing gargoyles for the cathedrals. One of the elves would push a sled loaded with gifts across the front lawn, a ribbon of flashing lights leading the way.
For the piece de resistance: a full-sized reproduction of Mamie Van Doren as a scantily-clad Mrs. Claus, waving at the stunned crowd of gawkers below from a perch on the roof.
I had everything figured out … except the money and the knowhow.
“I can spare ten bucks.”
For ten dollars I was able to buy three strands of ordinary Christmas tree lights and a box of those special bubble lights
— the ones that looked like candles.
I quickly realized the passages from Dickens were out.
I tried to build an armature for one of the elf figures, and I cut myself on the chicken wire. When I finally got the thing put together and started the papier maché process, the smell of the paste made me sick.
So much for the elfin characters on the lawn.
I had no idea how I was going to make Mamie on the roof a reality. But she looked so great in Dad’s Playboy magazine! I decided further study of Mamie was required. Nightly study, as a matter of fact.
So, I was left with the Christmas tree lights. I took the strands from their boxes and, I swear this is true: They tangled themselves up in front of my eyes. It took me a couple of hours to untangle the wires and attach them. Then, when I plugged them in for a test … nothing. It took another hour or so to figure out which bulbs were bad and which were not screwed in tight.
Then, the placement of the lights.
Kind of a problem for a short, fat kid with poor eyesight.
I wobbled around on a creaky stepladder trying to hang the strands of lights to the beam beneath the front of the porch. I worked with hammer and horseshoe-shaped nails. I dropped things and hit myself with the hammer. I cursed. A lot. Mrs. Munson, the elderly next-door neighbor called my mom to complain.
I made it halfway down the length of the porch and realized Julia Child was on TV.
That’s as far as the project got. When I plugged in the lights later that evening the single-strand display went halfway across the front of the house then took a nosedive onto the porch where the remaining bulbs emitted a glow from the porch deck.
I convinced myself the work was avant-garde, in the style of Duchamp. No one else bought it.
My fink of a cousin won the lighting contest a second time.
Plus, he got a part-time job at Sears and starting socking away cash in a college fund.
Fortunately, when we returned from the annual Tribute to J.R. and his Lighting Display, there was something great to eat: oyster stew, Welsh rarebit and Swedish meatballs. A hands-across-the-sea pre-holiday feast.
So, now, when I can’t avoid cruising past a Christmas house lighting display (and can’t avoid Kathy’s new lighting display anthem) I at least have the option of whipping up some Swedish meatballs.
These beauties are great any time of year, but strike a particularly warm chord during the winter months.
Here’s how to whip up some super kottbullar.
Use equal amounts of ground beef and ground pork, a half pound of each. Add some finely-minced white onion, Kosher salt, ground black pepper, a smidge each of ground nutmeg and allspice. Take a mess of breadcrumbs and soak them in milk. Add them to the meat mix with a couple beaten eggs and combine very, very well. Very well.
Take a small wad of the meat and fry it. Taste it and adjust the seasoning in the rest of the mix, if necessary.
Form meatballs approximately the size of a ping-pong ball (smaller if they are to be consumed as hors d’ouevres) and sauté the balls in butter, taking care not to crowd them. After the meatballs brown, remove them and put them in a covered, warm vessel. When all are done, toss flour in the pan with the fat, cook for a while, then add beef broth to create a brown sauce of thick consistency. Add some heavy cream, season (Kosher salt, black pepper, perhaps a whisper of nutmeg) and reduce to the desired thickness. Put the meatballs in the sauce and warm.
Eat, with buttered, parslied egg noodles and green peas.
No finks, or singing, allowed.