The Gender Politics of Christmas Lights
Now that Christmas is almost here, I love to walk around my neighborhood after dark to look at the Christmas lights. There’s a wide range reflecting diverse tastes and traditions: white lights wrapped around railings and tree trunks, colored lights flashing patterns and changing colors, over-the-top ensembles complete with inflatable Santas, snowmen, and snowglobes, and, new this year (as far as I can tell), laser lights which project an image of Christmas lights across the entire facade of your house with just the flick of a switch. My favorite houses have set up their Christmas tree next to the window for everyone to admire. Each house is a beacon, a feast for the eyes on these long (oh so very long) winter nights.
In my own house there’s a (self-imposed) rule that no Christmas decorations go up before the first of December.
Last year the first happened to be a day that E. wasn’t at nursery school, so we got to work decorating the house. We set up the tree (a rather sad artificial four foot specimen dating from when Husband and I first set up an apartment together), strung it with lights, and decorated it. We hung the stockings and arranged the Christmas books. We set out the felt choir mice made by my mother and grandmother and spread out the tree skirt (also made by my grandmother). We wrapped our indoor twinkle lights around the curtain rods and ran them along our bookcases.
“Right,” I said when we were finished, surveying our handiwork, “we’re all done!”
“No we’re not,” returned E. “We haven’t put the outside lights up yet.”
“Oh Daddy puts those up,” I told him. “We need to wait for Daddy.”
“That’s just how we do things. When Daddy gets home you can ask him if he has time to put up the lights today. Or maybe he’ll do it at the weekend.”
E. fixed me with a long, stern stare. At three and a half, he was not easily budged when he set himself upon an idea, and he was not going to wait until the weekend for the outdoor lights.
“Why, Mummy, why?” he asked again. “WHY do we have to wait for Daddy? Why can’t we do it right now?”
I opened my mouth to answer, and then stopped.
I didn’t have a good reason as to why we had to wait for his father to come home.
It had just never occurred to me before that I could do it myself.
You see, when I was growing up, putting up the Christmas lights was a man’s job.
My sisters and I would dig the tree box out of the basement, drag it up to the living room, and put it together (my family has a long history of artificial trees). We’d also decorate it. But in between there’d be a point where my stepfather would sit and untangle the strings of lights and painstakingly determine which bulbs had burnt out and replace them and then wrap the line of lights around and around the tree.
It was an utterly thankless job, and no one ever thought to question why he was always the one to do it.
When it was time for the outdoor lights to go up, it was again my stepfather who untangled the strings and checked the bulbs and then stood outside on a ladder with bare hands in the cold making sure they were securely in place.
At my father’s house, there was a similar division of labor.
I can see where there were once arguments in favor of keeping these tasks from my sisters and I, at least while we were children. We weren’t tall enough to reach the roof line, even standing on the stepladder, and the job of identifying and replacing the burnt out bulbs was finicky and tiresome. If it were left to us, it probably wouldn’t ever be finished.
But as we grew older, we never questioned this tradition. And somehow I had internalized it so deeply that as an adult I still assumed that if Christmas lights needed to go up, that was Husband’s job.
What makes this assumption even more ridiculous is that Husband comes from a sun-burnt country where it’s often 40 degrees Celsius at Christmas and where the vast majority of households never put up outdoor Christmas lights. It’s hard to see the point when you’d have to wait until 10 p.m. to switch them on.
Husband has less experience with Christmas lights than I do.
I stood there and looked at my son, absolutely stunned by what he’d seen so clearly.
E. lived in a household where labor was very consciously NOT divided up along gender lines.
He watched his father cook dinner and vacuum, and his mother put out the garbage and shovel snow.
I had always thought that there were only three things in our household that were segregated by gender: the finances (because I love organizing our money and Husband hates it), the BBQ (because Husband likes to char meat and I do not), and lawn maintenance (because I am afraid of the whipper-snipper).
E. had pointed out just how blind I’d been.
Our outdoor Christmas lights consisted of two strings (maybe 250 lights in all) that we usually wrapped around one of the columns of our front porch and along the railing.
It would be more time consuming but not any more challenging than stringing the 200 or so lights on our Christmas tree, something which I’d done not more than an hour earlier. I guess the same stumbling block didn’t apply with the tree because the tree was so small and the lights were the new LED kind that didn’t burn out. It wasn’t a situation similar to that of my childhood, so it had never occurred to me that I shouldn’t do it.
“You’re right, E.,” I said at last. “We don’t have to wait for Daddy. Let’s go put on our coats and our boots and we’ll put up the lights together.”
And when Husband came up the stairs at suppertime, the lights were on to welcome him home.
Featured image credit: Ted Thompson, via flickr.