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Let There Be Lights!

So go ahead. Hang a wreath on every door. Fill the mantel with all the fresh holly and pinecones you like. Line the bookcases with as many porcelain Santas as they can hold.

But let’s get one thing straight right now. I am the dad. And I put the lights on the Christmas tree.

How this became the exclusive domain of the man of the house I’m not sure, but it just is, and it’s a job I take seriously. I suppose some moms out there do it, but for most men, putting the lights on the tree is a solemn tradition handed down from dad to dad, generation to generation.

For me, it all goes back to Christmas as a kid. I’d watch from a safe distance as my dad unraveled the tree lights year after year, sternly tested each one, then snapped each bulb onto a branch (each lamp had its own metal clip back then). The task required the same singular focus and clarity of mind Dad needed to move large piles of mulch or pack the family station wagon for a two-week vacation. You didn’t get in his way. And he didn’t want any help.

But there was more to it than that, and now that I have a family of my own, I understand. Deep down in their primal ganglia, all dads know instinctively that tree lights link them straight to their ancient, eternal duty to provide home and hearth and warmth for mom and the kids. If the Christmas tree serves as epicenter of holiday jubilation, the lights fill every dad’s fundamental need to make fire. Fire is what Dad does and what Dad calls his own—same as stoking the logs in the fireplace, presiding over the barbeque grill, or obsessing about the thermostat setting. Prehistoric Man roasted a boar in a cave. Twenty-first Century Dad gives you a bonfire of lights on a tree.

Of course, modern dads must negotiate delicate matters of tree diplomacy with the family in general and with Mom in particular. Will the tree lights be all white or will they be multicolored? Should they blink or should they burn steadily? If they do blink, will they all blink together, or will they twinkle at random? And just how many total lights can—and should—the tree hold? “Less is more,” I try telling my wife, drawing on years of careful analysis of light brightness and density. “More is more!” she says, having grown up with aesthetics completely alien to mine. She turns to head upstairs. “Just let me know when they’re on,” she calls over her shoulder.

So let’s get started. First, I unravel the tangled light strings and stretch them around the den, all the while hectoring the kids to watch out where they step. Next, I plug in each line to make sure it works. Some don’t, of course, which brings everything to a stop as I attempt to identify which bulb on the line is the spoilsport. Yes, I know I could simply go out and buy a new string. But real dads let their tree lights know who’s boss. We’ll switch out bulbs, pry at the miniature sockets and even replace those tiny fuses the size of sunflower seeds to make our old light strands spring back to life again.

Now we’re ready to string the lights. But wait: Will the lights I have on hand completely fill the tree from top to bottom? This must be determined anew from year to year. Since the tree is shaped like a cone, we must use simple formulas for analyzing geometric figures and concepts in three dimensions. This means calculating downward from the conical vertex to the plane of the base using principles of algebra, trigonometry, the Pythagorean theorem and, quite probably, the cursory use of pi. But centuries of dad DNA let me calculate all this at a glance. Of course, it helps to hear Nat King Cole singing “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and to know that an assortment of beers brewed just for the holidays awaits me in the fridge.

Soon I’m circling the tree and hanging lights with a laser-like sense of space and depth. It might be easier if the lights were already plugged in and lit, but I work purely from instinct, threading my way through the needles like a captain navigating tricky seas with only the wind and the stars to steer by. Plus, there’s that magic moment to come. Once I’m done, I’ll call Mom and the kids down to watch as I plug in the fully lit tree for the first time. Now the tree is a spire of blazing glory, and each of us in turn applies the “squint test,” narrowing our eyes to spot gaps in the great constellation.

Tonight, thanks to one last nudge I’ve given Pythagoras – and an extra 100-light strand I’ve been keeping in reserve – the Christmas tree stars are perfectly aligned. And later on, after we’ve added the ornaments and the tinsel and the angel, I turn off all the lamps in the den and pop the top off one of those cold holiday brews. I smile at the great, shining tree before me. I am Twenty-first Century Dad, and I have filled this room with light and warmth and joy. Then I give the squint test one last time.

You know what? Mom is right. More is more.

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. He lives in Richmond’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will. He writes for the DadZone every other month and shares theater reviews occasionally too.
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