Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Big Picture 11

Tomorrow is Christmas Day - or, as I like to call it, The Day of the Long Knives. If you have the time to read this newspaper, you are either highly organized and have been ready for Santa since August (and will be punished, if not in this life), or are a total slob who, sometime late tomorrow afternoon, will toss a set of knotted, CSA-challenged mini-lights over the rubber tree and go back to bed (how I envy you), or are not a Christian (ditto).

Whatever you do, as soon as it’s dark you’ll notice that no matter what amount of effort you’ve put into the holiday, somebody in your neighbourhood has gone Christmas crazy and made your cheery, tasteful assembly of twinklies, tree and candles look as barren as the bottom of a discount bin at 5pm on December 27th.

You know who I’m talking about: the guy three doors down with the animatronic, fairy-lit deer on his lawn, the kind that play, and dance to, 32 different non-stop carols; the woman down the hall who strings real (and highly poisonous) holly over the elevator door; the elderly couple with the life size Nativity scene on the roof. These people don’t decorate, they annex - the front of their homes look like the keel of the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
How I admire their nerve. I was raised in a typical United Church Canadian family, among people who believed that Christmas was not a time to show off – it was a time to put two dollars in an envelope for the poor children of Bangladesh and be grateful for your canned cranberries. Besides, in rural New Brunswick, slathering your shingles in electricity-hungry lights was not only considered pushy, it was actually unsafe. Only people with homes really worth robbing put Rudolph on the roof.

But today, thanks to Chinese prison labour, anybody can deck the halls for a couple of bucks. I’ve found strings of lights going for 60 cents. And a plastic Santa as fat as a Corgi is cheaper than a Toberlone bar. Excess has been democratized by cheap imports, and this has lead to a home decorating phenomenon I like to call Rococo Noel.

The key element of Rococo Noel is, of course, lighting. Lots of lighting, in lots of colours. Outdoor lighting you can read by. Not to be confused with the Yule Formalist style – wherein every light is hung straight across a plinth, gable or banister, in perfect symmetry and all in one colour (hateful, truly hateful) – Rococo Noel lighting emphasizes maximum impact at the expense of normative notions of order, composition, or WASPish good taste.

Many Rococo Noel lighting treatments can’t properly be said to be hung at all – they are merely wrapped, or, better yet, taped with silver duct tape, around the nearest branch or window frame. The point is to get as many lights up as quickly as possible – if the gnarled web of cords looks messy, who cares? Nobody looks at Christmas lights in the daytime.

The second sure sign of an RN enthusiast is an abundance of lawn sculpture, which can be roughly broken down into two types: liturgical and magical (although die hard RN-ists mix both freely).

Liturgical lawn sculpture typically commemorates the birth of Jesus, with Mary, Joseph and the rest of the bedazzled gang swarming around the glowing cradle. Not very original, granted - but fear not, Rococo Noel subscribers rarely play by the rules. Store bought Nativities come with, what, 6 pieces max? The Holy Family and a three bystanders? Sounds like a challenge to me.
RN houses add value to the traditional measly manger set up by tossing in plastic farm animals, always way off scale (the toy cows and sheep as big as baby JC’s fist always fill me with glee, as there is an implied sacrilege in the faulty perspective, in Jesus’s inhuman gigantism), lawn sculptures poached from other seasons – the doubled over, ass-out gardening granny comes in handy, as will an axe-wielding garden gnome or African American fishing boy, but I swear I’ve seen Halloween ghosts and unshaven drunks holding up lampposts hovering over Our Lord – and, if all else fails, plastic flowers.

When an RN family goes all out, they mix the Nativity with the North Pole and create magical landscapes, psychedelic dream worlds where Santa’s elves bring toys to Saint Joseph, the Wise Men arrive on Rudolph’s back, and the Herald Angels cavort with Frosty in the back of the fat man’s sleigh like drunk ho’s in a pimp ride. Why not, it’s the season of miracles isn’t it?
My friends who collect sightings of Rococo Noel houses have noted that equatorial themes have entered the mix in the last decade, undoubtedly another benefit of multiculturalism. Dollar store lizards, butterflies and neon coloured snakes have been spotted on Santa’s lap, and one keen observer even found a crèche populated by Rastafarians. Last year I saw a life size plastic Asian Santa for sale on Spadina, complete with dragons and phoenixes in his bag of goodies.

Imagine the envy Saigon Santa would prompt in my Portuguese neighbourhood, the ground zero of Rococo Noel in Toronto, where it’s not uncommon for people to glue gun their kids’ beat up dolls and chewed dinosaurs onto plastic trees, or stick a crucifix behind poor Mary’s head (a perhaps insensitive but theologically sound gesture).

Whatever the ingredients, Rococo Noel always conveys a hint of aggression, a defiant notice to one’s neighbours that the inhabitants behind the spectacle are living the holidays on their own terms, with their own creativity as the guiding force - damn the washed out flicker of eco-friendly LED lights and the tasteful understatement of window treatments purchased whole from the flower shop.

You’ve got the rest of the year to be boring, these houses shout. Your house deserves a little drink or five too.