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Decking The Halls With Christmas Lights Brightens A Dark 2020

In a normal year, Maya Robinson-Napier of Huntersville, N.C., wouldn't decorate her house for Christmas too much. Maybe a tree inside, a string of lights outside.

But this hasn't been a normal year.

Robinson-Napier lost both parents, her mother to complications from multiple sclerosis and her father to congestive heart failure. And after months of staying at home with her family because of the coronavius pandemic, she decided her husband and their sons, age three and six, needed a little holiday cheer.

Now there's a lot.

Robinson-Napier has been accumulating decorations every day like drifts of snow. Now, her front lawn is nearly unrecognizable. There's a stack of presents stretching seven feet tall on the deck, flanked by an elf and a nutcracker. There are snowflake lights and wire reindeer; ornaments; projections; a towering, inflatable Frosty the Snowman.The centerpiece: 13 gold lighted arches she and her husband crafted themselves.

"I guess they make the biggest impact, because one night, someone stopped us and said, "We saw it from the road!'" Robinson-Npaier laughs. "We were like, 'Oh, my goodness.' So our neighbors probably don't like us at all with all these blinding lights."

Robinson-Napier is far from alone in choosing to go all-out on decorations this year. As the pandemic has kept families homebound and longing for something festive, many are turning to Christmas decorations, says Michael Short, a manager at Plain City, Ohio-based company The Light Before Christmas, which decks the halls of area homes with light displays.

Even before Halloween, he says, Ohioans began requesting the full Christmas treatment.

"We had people calling in October that were like, 'We'd like our house to look really nice because that's where we're going to be stuck at. So we want it to look beautiful and we want the lights up, like, right now,'" he says. "The amount of people that said that was truly fantastic." Decorators from the company are now scrambling to get lights up on hundreds more homes than last Christmas season.

In some places, the rush has led to shortages. John DeCosmo, a 30-year veteran of the Christmas decoration industry, says it's been an unprecedented season. DeCosmo is president of Ulta-Lit Tree Company, which supplies artificial trees and also offers a hotline for merrymakers to troubleshoot string lights on the fritz.

"We're just all amazed," DeCosmo says. In early December, a colleague called from the picked-over Christmas aisle of a home improvement store. "He said every single Christmas light in that store was gone. It's an amazing phenomenon," he says.

DeCosmo attributes the trend to "cocooning," the same behavior that drove pandemic-bound homeowners to bulk order fresh house paint in May and patio furniture and trampolines in June. "When people are home, they have made a decision to spend a little more money and time on the home," he says.

Maya Robinson-Napier's "memory tree" features  handmade ornaments commemorating those the family has lost this year as well as blank ornaments for neighbors and strangers to add.
/ Maya Robinson-Napier
Maya Robinson-Napier
Maya Robinson-Napier's "memory tree" features handmade ornaments commemorating those the family has lost this year as well as blank ornaments for neighbors and strangers to add.

For Robinson-Napier, the elaborate decorations go beyond that. The centerpiece of her setup is a "memory tree," festooned with handmade ornaments commemorating those the family has lost this year — her parents, as well as her best friend's mother and a good friend of her husband's. It's been a year punctuated by loss.

"We also have blank ornaments out there, so if other people have names that they want to write, they can do that and leave it on the tree as well," Robinson-Napier says. "People have lost people for so many different reasons this year that I just felt like it would be good to have a tree that just represented everyone."

Like a lot of Americans this holiday season, Robinson-Napier struggled to find joy amidst so much loss. Ultimately, she felt that grief and celebration weren't incompatible.

"The best way to honor those who aren't here is to live and be happy," she says. "Because that's what they would want."

And though it can be tough to get into the spirit at the end of a long, bleak year, she says it can be worth it, too. She remembers sitting in her driveway one evening earlier this month, talking on the phone with the hospice where her father was living before he died.

"I was sitting in the car and I was just watching people stop," she says. One after another, neighbors paused to stare at the arches and reindeer, the giant snowman and the twinkling snowflake lights.

"People just want something to feel good about, and it's hard right now to find those things," says Robinson-Napier. "And so when you can have something you can look at that's beautiful for a bit, and you forget about all the other things that are going on. I think it's healing for a lot of people."

Next year, she says, pandemic or not, she'll keep the tradition going.

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Emma Talkoff