In 2015, their final year of operation, I wrote for the Community Board Advent Calendar an elegy for the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights. I present it now to you.
“What?” my sister laughs. “Did he just say ‘that’s so tits’?”
I listen to the blaring give-and-take of Dave Foley and his partner elf as we lean against the railing in the cul-de-sac, relieved to briefly be out of the oppressive milling of the crowd. My mom almost had a claustrophobic panic attack, and has retired to another part of the park to calm down. She’s told us to enjoy the lights, since she knows we love them, but that’s proving difficult.
“I think he said ‘that’s so tinsel’,” I reply. “I don’t think they’d include ‘that’s so tits’ in an ad for their Christmas special.”
“Damn, that would’ve been so funny though,” my sister says. “’That’s so tits.’”
“This is not so tits,” I say, surveying the shoulder-to-shoulder masses of humanity that surround us, making the illuminated boulevards of the Streets of America feel like the crowded path to a slaughterhouse.
“Stop saying that,” says my dad, raising his voice to be heard over the loudspeaker’s exhortation to watch Prep and Landing this Tuesday on ABC. “I think we should wait a couple more minutes for the next song, and then leave.” That turns out to be a mistake. The next track is a grating pop-rock rendition of the already hideous novelty song “I’m Gettin’ Nothin’ for Christmas”. My dad and I are generally forgiving of Christmas schlock – we’ll tolerate almost anything, up to and including Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas”. But this atrocity is several bridges too far. We beat a swift retreat through the swarming crowd, slowing only once the caterwauling of the Plain White Ts has faded and the sidewalks opened up.
My dad turns around to look at the blinking lights for what will turn out to be the last time.
“It’s a shame this turned to crap,” he says.
“The Osborne Family Lights are so tacky,” my dad was fond of saying in the years prior to this incident, “that they transcend tackiness.” In some ways, this could be considered an accurate description of almost everything Walt Disney World creates. Make a bunch of inaccurate little world landmarks around a pond in your yard and it’s tacky. Make it 150 acres and it’s half of Epcot.
But the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights is a special case, since it actually started out as a tacky display in someone’s yard. Specifically, the Little Rock, Arkansas yard of wealthy businessman Jennings Osborne. The official history of the display reads like a lost Christmas fable, one of those little fairy tale stories that nobody ever got around to adding a moral to. I render it here with only a little more amelioration than Disney and Wikipedia:
“Once upon a time, there was a rich merchant who had a young daughter. She asked for him to light up their house for Christmas, and he did, so she was happy.
“But the next year, she wanted him to add more lights, so he did. This continued for a number of years, until eventually there were so many lights on the house that he could not place any more. Not wanting to disappoint his daughter, the merchant purchased the two houses on either side of his own, and bedecked them in lights as well. Soon, travelers began to appear to marvel at the lights, and the merchant’s neighbors got upset at the disturbance they caused. But the merchant could not upset his daughter; he heard the complaints of his neighbors, and only added millions more lights in response.
“Eventually, the magistrate stepped in, and declared the illumination of the lights unlawful. The merchant protested, eventually taking his case to the highest court in the land, but the judges all agreed: the lights had to go. Distraught, the merchant prepared to dismantle the display.
“But then, an emissary from a great kingdom to the South interceded: he had a street, he said, a wondrous street where there were no neighbors to complain and no meddling magistrates to interfere! A street where nobody lived but everybody visited, so that the lights could continue to bring joy to more people than they ever had before! How could the merchant refuse? He allowed the lights to be packed up and shipped to the Southern kingdom, and in that new place they continued to dance, even after the daughter grew old, and the merchant died.”
The reality of the story is not so fairy-tale perfect. It’s a tale of municipal ordinances and bourgeois excess and one of the largest entertainment companies in the world tucking a crass holiday-themed curiosity into its portfolio for two decades of use before deciding to discard it. But isn’t it more fun to think of it as a fairy tale?
Moist pavement gleams crimson, and my sister sits on it, crying.
I pace listlessly on the edge of a planter, one of the few bits of decoration in this alley, which serves as a necessary but featureless little duodenum for what is at the time Disney-MGM Studios. Some of the color from the grand display around the corner spills out, dimly casting everything in primary hues. We’re waiting for the Disney paramedics to arrive.
I’m twelve or thirteen, and trying to ignore the heat. My anger with Florida’s incorrect Christmas temperatures has been smoldering for a decade, and will continue to burn for another. The air feels like a giant’s warm, clammy breath, and maybe that’s contributed to my family’s overall irritability. My sister has entered a phase of low-level rebellion which she has yet to really leave. In 2015, it takes the form of getting small tattoos every couple months. In 2007, she mainly just stomps around everywhere after getting into snippy little arguments with our mother. Tonight, as we leave the tacky spectacle behind, she has stomped right off a low curb and twisted her ankle.
The secondhand light begins to change, like the flickers from a TV in the other room, as Elvis croons above the muffled crowd noise. “Here comes Santa Claus, Here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus lane!” Instead of Santa, we get an efficient Disney medic emerging from a “Cast Members Only” gate that leads outside the park. He leaves quickly after confirming the ankle isn’t broken, offering an ice pack, and summoning a wheelchair from thin air.
The memory of the lights fades as our bus trip back to the hotel, burdened with the wheelchair, stretches into a two hour odyssey.
Would we think of fireworks as tacky if they stayed in place from November 27th to January 8th? Maybe so. Disney’s fireworks displays are the other feature of the parks to which the lights bear the most resemblance, but the difference of course is that fireworks are transitory, while Christmas lights are resolutely, garishly permanent. With fireworks, the ugly materiality of the mortars and shells is allowed to fade into the night, leaving only the brilliance of flame. When you get close enough, Christmas lights can’t help but remind you of their physical presence, growing like pointed berries on a PVC vine. The Osborne Family Lights contained ten miles of light cords – supported by thirty miles of plain, workmanlike extension cord.
Ten miles of lights is more than enough. It’s enough to blanket every building along the fake boulevards once tucked behind Muppet*Vision 3D. It’s enough to make a crimson canopy to hang above a side street, and conical ‘trees’ that sprout like stalagmites from hidden roofs. It’s enough to draw trains and toys and Santa Clauses, enough to bring aloft a whole heav’nly host of crudely animated angels, who surround a spinning globe drawn in yet more lights. It’s enough to overwhelm, enough to overcrowd, but hopefully, on some rare days, enough to overcome; Overcome the inherent tackiness. Overcome the poor music choices and the endless radio shilling for Disney properties. Ten miles of lights is enough, as my dad once asserted, to become transcendent.
Like most things about Christmas, the lights are rooted in ancient pagan sentiments about the cycle of the seasons: it’s dark, and we’d rather it not be. Each bulb is a tiny Yule log, blazing into the night to keep the darkness at bay.
Five million lights will fight off a hell of a lot of darkness. Is it such a stretch to imagine they might introduce something of the opposite?
As the sprained ankle and raucous crowd attest, the quantity of lights is not enough to guarantee transcendence. But that’s the nice thing about Christmas – you only really need something to happen once to relive it every year.
Scintillating shards of color circle a leaden sky, and it’s snowing bubbles.
I wake up and stare out of the stroller, where I’m swaddled against the mild Florida chill. I am young – two or three. So young that I don’t yet have glasses, don’t even know the world shouldn’t be this blurry and impressionistic. To my sides, the canvas of the stroller, hiding everyone else from view; I am alone in a hushed crowd. High above, eighty thousand watts of luminance arcs across my field of vision, countless yellow and blue and red and green and white lights sloshing together through my imperfect retinae into flowing walls of color.
The silhouette of a machine crouches atop one of the illuminated façades, blustering bits of fluff from its snout. It is a weak and flavorless soap agitated to a fine foam and then shredded by a fan. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s snow. Snow is warmer than I expected it to be, and larger, but no less magical as it lands on my upturned face. I will not know the real thing for another six years.
Music starts playing – I am too young to distinguish tunes. The important thing, anyway, is that the brilliance arrayed above me begins to blink and change and grow and fade in time with the flow and ebb of the sound. The lights, all five million of them, begin to dance.
At some point, I fall asleep again. But deep inside my mind, sensation crystallizes into memory. I don’t know what tackiness is, but I have experienced something transcendent all the same. Now I know how Christmas feels.