Ben Fields: Of Christmas lights and not-so-silent nights (Opinion)

Ben Fields

Ben Fields

It’s our first Christmas in our home here in Charleston, and I feel bad because I didn’t put up any lights this year.

Last year, we were in a rental house in South Charleston, and our previous home in Kentucky, while offering handy hooks beneath the gutters along the front, had a precipitous drop above a concrete driveway on the far end. I strung lights across it once. I had numerous visions of plummeting to my death while putting them up and taking them down, so that was the end of that.

The Fields clan has what I can only guess is a fairly typical history with Christmas lights. My first memory of holiday external illumination was my father stringing out strands of those old, large outdoor Christmas bulbs to make sure they still worked. You know, the ones that had chipped lead paint on them? Without fail, as Dad would test the strands indoors, one bulb would blow and nearly start a fire. Or I’d hear a loud yelp and rush to the living room to find my father laid out on the floor from a savage jolt.

“Mom, Dad’s dead,” I’d relay to the other room. She’d assure me the rising and falling of his chest meant he was fine. He’d eventually find his feet and start again after 15 minutes or so. He was a trooper in those days.

When I got old enough to help, we’d put lights on everything that could hold them in the front and back yards. Sure, some of them were large bulbs and others small. Some were blinking, some were not. And the ones on the large hemlock tree by the garage looked like they’d just been thrown up there and wherever they landed was good enough — because that’s what we did. So what?

Eventually, my younger brother joined in, and we created a riot of vivid splendor annually. Of course, we weren’t always as keen about taking them down. I remember one year, they stayed up until about March, or maybe even early April. One day, I was shooting hoops in the driveway, when our cat emerged from the hemlock and began pawing at the branches. “Look,” one of my friends said, “She’s had it with you guys. She’s going to take the lights down herself.”

When the youngest sibling, my sister, got a bit older, she and Mom began insisting on only clear lights for the house and the Christmas tree. My brother and I hated it, but the sterile look was very chic in and around our neighborhood during the late ’80s and most of the ’90s. Dad had retired from hanging lights by that point, fed up with all the grousing over the result.

One Christmas, tired of the clear-lights edict, my brother and I took a bunch of multi-colored net lights (weren’t those a wonderful leap forward for covering shrubs?) and put them all over our sister’s new car. She came outside, honored us with an eye roll and a sigh, and went back to her room.

My brother, now with his own family, has carried on the lighting tradition in the extreme. He’s like a competent Clark Griswold, covering every inch of surface area on every tree, lamp post and external house feature with colorful lights. I’m impressed by the whole thing, honestly. And I think it’s great that it’s something he enjoys doing. It also makes me feel a bit worse about the fact that I’ve been a slacker when it comes to Christmas decorations. (That’s my problem, not his. Lord knows he took the blame for enough of my thick ideas from his first day on Earth until he was about 18 or so. No need to add guilt to the mix now.)

There’s been little prompting from my own son for outside lights, that I know of, but he’s into the whole Christmas aesthetic this year more than ever. It’ll probably only intensify next year. We’ve been wielding the “Santa’s watching” powers with reckless abandon. It’s a shame that only works for a while. “God is watching” has more stern, long-term implications, but there’s that whole forgiveness loophole.

Anyway, I think I need to get off my duff next year and put some effort into decorating the house. It’s not as fun without the risk of fire or electrical shock (lousy LED bulbs with their lack of heat, relative safety and low power consumption), or a brother on a ladder you can shake, but I’m sure I’ll find a way to injure myself so the kid has some decent Christmas memories of his own.

Ben Fields is the Gazette-Mail opinion editor. He left several disastrously hilarious Christmas decoration mishaps out of this column because this is a family publication. Reach him at 304-348-5129, or follow

@BenFieldsWV on Twitter.


Campbell, Virginia - 2 p.m., Wallace Funeral Home & Chapel, Barboursville.

Fisher, Helen - 6 p.m., Cunningham - Parker - Johnson Funeral Home, Charleston.

Johnson, Linda - 2 p.m., Highland Memory Gardens, Chapmanville.

Kessler, Carolyn - 5 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home Chapel, Poca.

King, Charles - Noon, Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Nitro.

Pauley, Bernice - 11 a.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Sigman, Christopher - 2 p.m., Propps Family Cemetery, Summersville.

Williams, Archie - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.