The Light Before Christmas
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, and then some.
Bertha Ahlschlager says her decorating has “grown into a monster.” It began six years ago when she gave a credit card to an employee, with instructions to decorate her Highland Park house as he would his own. Now her friends and neighbors won’t let her and her husband, Walter, quit.
When it comes to the trappings of Christmas—primarily lots of snow and all the things that go with it, Texas was left out in the cold. That hasn’t fazed us, though; every Christmas we import evergreens and buy snow in spray cans or rolls and spread it around in homage to traditions our ancestors brought from Europe. The obligatory camels of the wise men may be slightly out of place amid the icicles, but if the camels notice, no one else seems to.
Decorating for Christmas often takes on a life of its own. Regular folks with a little too much time and energy start turning their houses into mini-Coney Islands of lights and tableaux, often creating the wildest juxtapositions of angels, choirboys, and Santas.
Over the last eight years, Christina Patoski has sought out the extravaganzas, the famous and the humble, from across Texas. She has found Christmas decoration a sort of folk art, a performance art that claims passersby as its audience. Whatever may go on inside the houses in the way of celebration, the outsides say, “Look at my yard; this is my notion of Christmas.”
Photography by Christina Patoski Drs. Patricia and James Parker of Fort Worth began to decorate their two-story house fourteen years ago, and the display hasn’t changed. They put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus on one balcony and four wise men (why not?) on the other. They put the lights up on permanent hooks the day after Thanksgiving and take them down on New Year’s Day. Pat Brooks, an art deco hound, thinks her Fort Worth house with its white lights looks like a pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. Last year she decided to decorate only a few days before Christmas. She actually finds Christmas depressing. Drive 1-35 south of Austin and you’re unlikely to miss the Crumley Grocery at Christmas. It takes 61-year-old D. E. Crumley four days to string the 2400 lights. He’d like to continue, but “at my age, you don’t commit to anything.’’ The owner of this house in Dallas was not bashful when he hired an electrical contractor to string 15,157 watts of lights, but he’d rather not reveal his name. He’s taking a breather this year but promises a bigger show in 1983. David Romero isn’t content to string a few lights. His homage to the season includes not only this snowman but a whole “Christmas spectacular” at his house in Hallsville. This robot is part of the elaborate concoction begun by the late L. T. and Lillian Burns. It is now operated by Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. First, Nat Baker took a photo of his house in Highland Park, then he projected it onto paper and sketched the tree. Next, he put in screw eyes so he could easily attach the strings of lights. But for 1982 he’s going to have something different. One of the eight-hundred-odd out-of-town visitors to sign the guest book at Bill Richardson’s eccentric show in Nocona was from Japan. You can’t see the glow quite that far, but almost. Richardson uses five thousand lights, many on the eleven 20-foot poles in the yard, plus old store displays for watches and panty hose. San Juana and Jose Martinez love to decorate their house in Fort Worth—they do it for Easter and Halloween, but Christmas is their favorite, despite the fact that such decorations are not traditional in their native Mexico. Help comes from their three children, and new items for the house come from sales of decorations after the holidays.
Shirley Carter, director of the Texas Girls’ Choir, lives on a block in Fort Worth where everyone decorates. She spends about $100 every year, partly because people keep stealing the wise men. Sometimes she decorates her 1941 Dodge too. The Atamanczuks of Fort Worth put up their first decorations (manger and choirboys) 23 years ago. Ann Atamanczuk says their kind of display “makes people realize what Christmas is all about instead of running to the store.” Dr. Clotilde Garcia of Corpus Christi thinks the “true Christmas spirit is red, white, green, all colors.” Accompanying her multi-hued displays are carols played over speakers. “I wish I could have animated animals and Sleeping Beauty, ” she laments. Anything is fair game for Christmas decoration at Midge Lovell’s house in Fort Worth. She strings lights on the 28-foot travel trailer and this year plans to decorate the 23-foot boat. Her husband is a carpenter, and they are looking for a Ferris wheel to embellish with lights next. Though all her lights were stolen once, she says, “We’re Christmas kind of people.” Margarita and Enrique Avila’s house in Brownsville is like a carol in pastels. During the traditional Mexican Christmas season—December 12 to January 6—their spiffily painted yellow and white house sprouts lights and a door decoration of evergreen sprays and golden bells. This is the thirteenth year of Christmas festooning for the Avilas. Nellia Henry “just caught myself decorating one day,” and the result is this amazing Fort Worth light show. She has a black and a white Jesus, angels, and wise men. She has decorated for thirty years, starting over after fire damaged the display in 1975. “I do it for Santa, but he will never stand as wide as Jesus in my book, ” she says. Just about everything, including a cutout of Mitch Miller, moves in Billy and Faye Aldridge’s Corpus Christi extravaganza. Some twenty electric motors, salvaged from Coke machines and barbecue grills, operate the numerous vignettes. Aldridge also produces a four-minute film to accompany the show, which is viewed, he says, by about 85,000 people every year. On your way by Luther Lake in Fort Worth to see the lights, don’t miss William Green’s house. He hates getting out the decorations—thus the message—but he insists they be in place before they distract him from hunting season. One of the oldest decorating traditions in Texas is the City of Highland Park’s trees. The city has done this for fifty years, except during World War II and the 1973 energy crisis. A third of the bulbs have to be replaced each year. The Christmas blues: Charles and Hope Medrano of Fort Worth always decorate; it takes them a morning’s work to outline the contour of their house and its windows, achieving what they describe as a “classic” treatment. Francisca Adams lives here now. She used to live next door. For six years a woman named Julia decorated the house in Austin, making the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe the centerpiece, the focus of the lights. But Julia and the Virgin have moved on.
When you have a house with its own name and you want to decorate, you do it in a big way. Al Morgan spends $5000 every year on Belle Nora in Dallas. It takes five men three days to string the three thousand lights.