The Great Christmas Contest Controversy
Twila wound the last string of Christmas lights onto the pine tree in front of their modest home on Blue Jay Lane. Len plugged the string into the cord end leading to the manger scene lights.
Arms in the air, he hollered, “We’re done,” his breath a soft puff of mist on the unusually crisp Saturday after Thanksgiving. After Black Friday, Bright Saturday, Anderton’s official outdoor decoration day.
“Are you cheering because of our beautiful house and yard that will help our steet win the best decorated in town? Or because the chore of outdoor decorating is over?”
Len’s grin widened. “Both. Time for the grand finale. Get out in the road and tell me what our place looks like.”
Twila waltzed across the paved road as her husband plugged the master cord into the outdoor receptacle. Colored lights lit the house and front yard. A spotlight focused on the central wooden manger with Baby Jesus surrounded by Mary, Joseph, a shepherd, a sheep, and three wisemen. The figures were large and well-detailed. Merry Christmas in lights scrolled over the scene.
“Looking good,” shouted their neighbor across the street. He, his wife, and two teen sons worked on putting up their outdoor lights. They decorated the yard with Santa, reindeer, and Happy Holidays.
Len said those neighbors were the reason Blue Jay Lane won a prize last year. Happy Holidays across the street from Merry Christmas had something for everyone. All the homes on the street had their lights up. Except the house to the left as Twila faced theirs. Not a light or decoration in the yard or on the white clapboard house with green trim.
Using her phone, Twila filmed a video of their outdoor décor as well as still shots. She crossed the street back to Len. “I’ve posted pictures both on Instagram and Facebook so our granddaughter, Katy, will see. Don will make sure she does.”
With one arm, Len snugged Twila to his side. “I’m glad they’re coming here for the holiday.” She put an arm around his back. “It’s because Katy begged to be part of the light contest that Marta agreed to come here this Christmas.”
“What a terrible time we had the one Christmas we spent with them, when Katy was three,” Len said. “Marta made sure we knew our being there was Don’s idea, not hers.”
Twila shuddered at the memory. “I never felt so unwanted and uncomfortable as a guest in my life.” She hated not having a cordial relationship with her daughter-in-law.
Len side-squeezed Twila and released her. “Our street won third prize last year. This year we’re going for number one.”
“That new family next door, the Sherman’s, their house isn’t lit at all.” Twila motioned toward the offending residence. “If they don’t decorate by December first our street won’t be eligible.”
“They’ve only been here a short time. They weren’t home at Thanksgiving, maybe they’ll decorate tomorrow. I wouldn’t worry, they must know about the contest and how important Christmas lighting is to our town. This will be the fifth year. What a difference to our economy when we draw in winter holiday visitors, shoppers to our coastal themed downtown.”
“When I welcomed the Shermans to the neighborhood, they seemed like nice people,” Twila said as she followed her husband into their home. “Patrick and Elizabeth have one son, Brandan, he’s thirteen.”
“I haven’t officially met them, but I’ve seen Mr. Sherman outside and said hello.” Len hung his coat on a wall hook in the utility room.
Twila shrugged out of her jacket. “I used to bring a pie over to newcomers to our street. Now everybody either has diabetes or is gluten intolerant. I quit bringing pies. I invited the Shermans to church, Elizabeth Sherman said they already had a church.”
Sunday afternoon, as Twila rinsed dishes she stared out the kitchen window at the neighbors’ house and yard. “Still no decorations. They’ve got to put up something.” Decorations couldn’t be last minute for their street to qualify. Visitors voted on their favorites which influenced the judges’ decisions.
Beside her Len stopped loading the dishwasher. “Honey, you can’t force someone to decorate their yard. If our street doesn’t qualify to win a prize it’s no big deal. Individual houses can win prizes, even if the street can’t.”
“I know, but I don’t want to give Marta any excuse to decide not to come for Christmas. She says she’s coming for Katy’s sake, and if Katy is disappointed … I really want our son and our only grandchild here for Christmas.”
Len gave Twila’s arm an encouraging pat. “Well, why don’t we find out what’s going on with our neighbors. I haven’t officially met them yet. Moving is expensive, and if they don’t have outdoor lights, they may not have the money to buy them. Whatever the reason, we can offer to help decorate their yard.”
“Len, that’s a wonderful idea. I met Elizabeth and her son, Brandon, but Patrick wasn’t home. Let’s go over, officially introduce ourselves, and talk to them.” Twila rinsed the last dish, handed it to Len to put in the dishwasher, then dried her hands on a paper towel.
Coats on, they trudged next door against a stiff breeze. Rain was in the forecast for tomorrow. Today was the best time to decorate outdoors. Len knocked on the door. No wreath on display. Only three days after Thanksgiving. Maybe this family wasn’t used to putting up decorations early.
The door cracked open. “Hi,” Len said. “We’re your neighbors next door, Len and Twila Berg. I’m Len, she’s Twila.”
Twila cringed, but smiled brightly. Len made lame jokes when he was nervous.
Patrick Sherman did not smile. “What can I do for you?”
A polite way of asking what do you want. At least the man was courteous.
Twila jumped into the conversation before Len could answer with another bad line. She knew exactly what he’d say. A John F. Kennedy parody. Ask not what you can do for us, it’s what we can do for you.
“Well, it’s more, what can we do to help?” Twila asked. “We noticed you don’t have your Christmas decorations up yet. December first is the deadline to enter Blue Jay Lane in the lighting contest. The first is just a few days away. Rain is forecast for tomorrow so today is best to do the job. We’d like to help any way we can. Consider our work a welcome to the neighborhood.” Instead of a free pie. The thought brought a moment of regret. She’d enjoyed giving away those pies.
Elizabeth Sherman appeared beside her husband and the door opened wider. But no one invited Twila and Len in.
“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said. “We appreciate the offer but we don’t decorate for Christmas.”
“Oh.” When Twila met her, Elizabeth had said they were Christians. “Don’t worry if you don’t have outside decorations. We have extra we’d be happy to share with you. We’ll put them up, you won’t have to do a thing.”
“We’ll keep the Christ in Christmas,” Len assured them.
“That’s just it,” Elizabeth said. “Christ isn’t in Christmas. He wasn’t born in December. Christmas is a pagan holiday instituted by Rome into the church, after the supposed conversion of Emperor Constantine to please his mother.”
“Christmas is a satanic holiday,” Patrick added.
Shocked to her toes, Twila stood silent.
“We don’t celebrate Christmas,” Patrick continued. “Putting up a Christmas tree is ungodly. Look it up in the Bible. Jeremiah 10. Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen… For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, … they deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers that it move not.”
“We’re safe,” Len said with a dismissive wave. “Our tree never saw a forest. It’s artificial. No silver and gold, only plastic and a little glass.”
Neither Patrick or Elizabeth smiled. Such stern, joyless faces.
Something warm and strong rose up in Twila. “A pagan holiday may have been celebrated for the winter solstice at one time, but Paul says we are to redeem the times for days are evil.” She wasn’t quite sure where that was in the Bible, but she knew it was in there.
Twila kept eye contact, her voice gentle but firm. “My savior and Lord, Jesus the Christ, was crucified on a tree. I’m not a heathen, and in the New Covenant my Christmas tree represents what Jesus did for me. Galatians 3:13 and1Peter 2:24. In Rev. 22 is the Tree of Life..” She didn’t have a lot of scripture locations memorized, but those she did. “What I celebrate December 25th with joy and love is the coming to earth of Jesus and looking forward to his return.”
“He didn’t come in December,” Patrick said. “He was probably born in September.”
“Perhaps he was born in September,” Twila said, glad he’d brought that point up. “Which makes celebrating his coming to earth in December even better. Especially important in light of modern society. Life begins at conception, right? Then Jesus was conceived in December. December is when he came to earth and began his human life in Mary’s womb. Either way, a cause for celebration.”
“God never commanded us to celebrate Jesus’ birth, or to celebrate the sabbath on Sunday,” Patrick said, his tone defensive.
Having no immediate comeback, Patrick had pivoted to a different subject of contention, keeping or not keeping the Saturday sabbath.
Twila laced her fingers with her husband’s and squeezed his hand, giving it a slight pull. The “let’s end this and get out of here,” signal.
Elizabeth shifted and Twila caught a glimpse of Brandon Sherman standing back behind his parents, listening. What did he think of their exchange?
“Well, it’s nice meeting you,” Len said. “If you do ever need help with anything, please let us know. Welcome to the neighborhood.”
Before Patrick could say anything else, Twila and Len hurried away. Once they were on their own property, Twila slowed. “There goes Blue Jay Lane’s chance to enter the street contest. What shall we do? If I tell Don that our street won’t be part of the contest, our family may not come. If I don’t say anything and they come and find out we aren’t contestants, Katy will be disappointed. Marta may be angry enough we didn’t tell them that she insists they go home.”
“Or she’ll have an excuse to make life miserable if she stays.”
That evening Christmas light viewers drove by the houses on Blue Jay Lane. Christmas music filled the air, every home and yard decorated except one.
Twila fought to have the right attitude toward their new neighbors. Resentment and unforgiveness had no place in her heart at any time of the year, but especially at Christmas. Her conscience pricked, she added her difficult daughter-in-law to her list of those to forgive.
Monday Twila completed her day’s volunteer work on a Christmas Bazaar, and bringing a meal and cleaning house for a friend recovering from surgery. Since his retirement, Len volunteered on handyman projects for people in need. As a member of the town council, he wanted to do more than sit in meetings
Twila arrived home before Len. She showered, changed into comfortable lounge clothes and sat in her favorite chair with a cup of tea and plate of Christmas cookies on a side table. Halfway through her treat, someone knocked on the front door. Twila struggled out of her recliner-rocker. Her muscles felt a bit stiff with all the exercise and then sitting.
Brandon stood on the front porch. “Hi, Mrs. Berg. I’m home from school and Mom and Dad aren’t off work yet. Can I talk to you? About Christmas?”
“Absolutely. Come in and have some Christmas cookies and eggnog.”
Brandon accepted the invitation without hesitation.
“So how do you feel about Christmas?” Twila asked when she had Brandon seated in the living room with treats on a tray table.
“Left out. All my friends getting gifts. The holiday movies, the decorations, I can’t do anything. It’s not fair. People who don’t even believe in Jesus or have any religion at all get to do the fun stuff. But not me.” Brandon finished a yellow frosted star cookie and drank half the Christmas cup of eggnog. “But that’s not what I want to talk about.”
“Oh. Well, go ahead and tell me.”
“It isn’t fair that my parents make our whole street miss out on an opportunity to win a prize. Maybe they won’t let you decorate for us, but I want to decorate our yard. I heard you say you had some extra lights? I want to borrow them.”
Help a teenage boy rebel against his parents? That couldn’t be right. Before Twila could decline, the front door opened and Len strolled in.
She’d let her husband handle this. She used the oft maligned, man-is-the-head-of-the-wife, to her advantage. This was one of those times.
“Len, Brandon from next door wants to borrow lights to decorate his yard despite his parents’ refusal to participate.”
Len responded with a wide grin and a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “Hmm. Sounds like a timely request to me. I’ve been thinking all day how to bring the Shermans into compliance so Blue Jay Lane qualifies for the street contest. Without them celebrating Christmas. I came up with an idea.”
“You did?” Twila hoped her husband’s idea wasn’t too obnoxious.
“I did. However, to put the lights on or near their property without permission could be a legal problem. But if Brandon does it … the plan might work.”
If her husband’s idea didn’t land them in scalding water.
Brandon had inhaled two more cookies. His face lighted with a wide grin. “Thanks, Mr. Berg, That would be awesome.”
“Not enough time today, but how about we carry out the plan tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow would be perfect, Mr. Berg. We have half-day at school. I’ll be home by myself all afternoon.”
Len and Brandon bumped fists.
And that is how Blue Jay Lane won first place in the fifth annual street-decorating Christmas light contest.
Even daughter-in-law Marta seemed to be in a better holiday mood, her derogatory comments few. Granddaughter Katy was delighted, thrilled to turn on her grandparents’ lights every afternoon at dusk.
At the corner where the two lots met, next to the street below the undecorated house and yard stood a sign. Brandon said his parents never mentioned the sign. Because of the location, or perhaps they didn’t recognize what the words meant. And he did not enlighten them. In eerie, glowing, pea green lights, the sign declared:
E. Scrooge Bah Humbug.
Right across from Happy Holidays, and right next to Merry Christmas.
As the news spread, hundreds of people drove by to see the unlit darkened house with the sickly green lights at the edge of the property—and had a good laugh. Everybody was represented on Blue Jay Lane, even those who despised Christmas.