CHRISTMAS Ah, Christmas, my most favorite season of the entire year. I could talk about all the different aspects of the season but I will concentrate on the decorating of the outside of our house. I grew up on Four Mile Road so it was always fun to deck the house out so many people could see it driving by.
My Dad was the electrical brains behind the scenes of our decorating. You may notice that I did not list him as an electrician. He was a carpenter by trade and an electrical person out of necessity. Whenever a set of lights failed, he immediately set about tinkering with them. At times I witnessed what Ralphie (A Christmas Story) and the “Old Man” experienced with the changing of the flat tire. However, I need to say that the roles were reversed. I was the listener and Dad was the deliverer of the expletives, mild though compared to what Ralphie blurted out.
The overall look of our decorating was definitely geometric. Our lights outlined the front porch windows, three windows on one side of the house and four on the other side. We also lined the front porch railing, four porch pillars, the front door and the trim board under the gutter across the front of the house. On the second floor we went around the front dormer windows and the gable around the dormer. We accessed the second floor decorating through the bedroom window and positioned a step ladder leaning against the dormer on the pitched roof. Yes, a serious accident waiting to happen.
Our most daring departure from our geometric lighting design was to cover the two boxwood shrubs one on each side of the front porch steps. These lights remained on the shrubs typically until the first thaw of spring. Reason being, the gutter over the shrubs leaked and dripped onto the shrubs and lights thereby freezing in place our display throughout the winter. Think my Dad hated this constant visual reminder for months that the gutters needed to be fixed.
We used 7½ watt interior bulbs for all of our lighting with the exception of the aforementioned boxwood shrubs. These were exterior bulbs which had a clear coating of glass over the paint color of the bulb. Thank goodness since they remained in place for about four months (remember, leaking gutters). It may have actually been my Dad’s way of avoiding the gutter repairs by using outdoor bulbs on the shrubs.
The paint coloring on the interior bulbs lasted only about three years before the color began to peel off. Our solution was not to purchase exterior bulbs but to repaint the peeled bulbs (not manufacturer recommended). The exterior bulbs were quite expensive. The process began by scrapping off any remaining paint, mixing a half dozen different paint colors, dipping the freshly scraped bulbs into the individual cans of colored paint and there it was new-looking bulbs ready for display. Not really!
All paint at the time was oil-based, took forever to dry on glass and never covered evenly. Drips, runs and bubbles showed everywhere, not to mention the hours it took to do all of this. Nevertheless, we (men) did it. Just occurred to me that we were actually years ahead of our time. We were just inches away from introducing the still popular clear Christmas bulbs.
Previously I said that the bulbs were 7½ watts each. Does not sound like much but multiply 7½ times the hundreds of bulbs that we used and the electrical demand became overwhelming for our house wiring capacity. Dad built our house in about 1930 and it was not wired to handle all the Christmas lighting. It was the routine rather than the one-time exception to head to the basement, flashlight in hand, to replace the fuse that had blown because of the overload. The fuses were a safety feature much as the breakers in the electrical panels are today. They were meant to blow in the case of the fuses or trip the breaker as we know today. Not to fear. Dad as a quasi electrician and me as his right hand apprentice always had a supply of fuses on hand. There were always at least two four-pack boxes of fuses within reach of the fuse box.
Long and short term solutions were available to us. Long term solution would have been to have the house wiring updated to handle the extra load at Christmas time. We were men, at least my Dad was, so we opted for one of the two quick short term solutions. Maybe the word solution is an overstatement. Easiest and safest would have been to eliminate some of the lights in the display. Again, remember we were men and more is always better. The second option, our choice, was to increase the amp size of the fuses, therefore sidestepping the safety feature of the lower amp fuses that would blow when there was an overload. The larger amp size fuses usually worked until we continued to add more lights to our decorating in succeeding years. Fortunately we never started an electrical fire because of our choice of solutions but an addition to my duty of plugging in the lights and unplugging them late in the evening was the routine trips to the basement to check how hot the ONE extension cord that connected all the lights to the outlet was. The extension cord was always hot to the touch and as pliable as a wet noodle. The whirling sound made by the electric meter dial spinning out of control meant everything was still working. If the dial had a lift rotor it could have taken flight just like a helicopter.