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Christmas lights are going up early in this pandemic-darkened year as we look ‘for some joy’

We’re coping and need some light, particularly the twinkling kind.

Maria Chavarria pushes a cart for herself and friends while shopping at Kindy’s Christmas Factory Outlet store on Saturday.
Maria Chavarria pushes a cart for herself and friends while shopping at Kindy’s Christmas Factory Outlet store on Saturday.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

As the holidays approach, many of us feel like George Bailey on the bridge. We want our wonderful life back, the everyday worries like parking tickets and lost luggage. We want grandmothers and babies, and bashful new boyfriends, crammed around a Thanksgiving table so big you have to bring your own chair.

Instead, we’re facing more lockdowns, the post-traumatic stress of the 2020 election, and a Thanksgiving that feels as if it’s on layaway for 2021. Winter’s heavy, dark curtain awaits us.

So when my son asked whether he could put his little Christmas tree up a few days after Halloween, and I began seeing ornamental reindeer pop up alongside jack-o-lanterns on suburban lawns, it seemed far too early but also obvious.

We’re coping and need some light, I figured, particularly the twinkling kind.

“I think with COVID and where we are in the world right now, we’re all just looking for some joy, some kind of normalcy,” Michelle Thomas, 51, told me inside Kindy’s Christmas factory outlet in South Philly on Saturday afternoon. “It’s been a crazy year.”

It didn’t seem necessary to ask an expert to confirm the psychology behind all of this, but I did it anyway.

“Yes, it’s a form of self-care and, importantly, it’s really a harmless form of self-care, as opposed to doing shots of tequila,” said Thea Gallagher, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s actually kind of cute people are doing this."

Yoon Suh Moh, an assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University’s College of Health Professions who focuses on community and stress counseling, said Christmas lights could be doubly effective.

“People have to find something to cope with the chronic stress of this year, and maybe this is something that they can do together, or for other people, outside," Moh said. "You’re spreading a sense of hope, maybe, by lighting up your neighborhood. You’re telling people we are all in the same boat.”

On a normal year, many, like myself, lament Christmas’ encroachment on Thanksgiving, the last holiday that seems remotely pure. In fact, I’m all for making Christmas Jan. 25, which would extend the season and up the chances of snow. Just leave Thanksgiving alone.

A spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation told me 40% of consumers begin their holiday shopping before Halloween, but that’s not the same as decorating. The idea this year, the NRF told me, is that a longer Christmas season lessens the chances of long lines, crowds, and shipping delays.

I have my own, secular Christmas traditions, rituals I’ve imprinted onto my kids, and they all involve crowds. For 20 years now, we’ve had a trifecta — the light show and Dickens Village at Macy’s in Center City plus an elbow-to-elbow Christmas Eve morning food run for fresh fish and pies with my father at the Reading Terminal Market. Those outings are bridges my mind must cross for the season to be complete, and I’m sure many people have similar bridges. A virtual light show won’t cut it for me, personally, so I’ll cross my fingers, keep my mask on, and hope next year is different.

At Kindy’s, which has been selling Christmas lights since 1932 as Brite Star Manufacturing, people began calling before Halloween, asking whether the store would open earlier than usual, said president Richard Kinderman.

“It’s been kind of dark and desolate for the last two weeks,” Kinderman said. “I’m biased, but I think Christmas lights make people feel good.”

Customers strolling the old, wooden floors there said COVID-19 was affecting every aspect of decorating. Most had more time at home. Some worried that future lockdowns would prevent them from going to stores to grab the lights. Most were trying to fend off the dread.

“I just need to get my mind off of what’s going on,” said Beverly Raschiatore. “It’s nice just being in here.”

Thomas, a Southwest Philly resident, told me her grandchildren would be with her for a subdued Thanksgiving. She wanted to have Christmas lights up for them.

“The kids have already been through so much this year with not being in school,” she said. “I want them to have something festive.”

Thomas is right. My wife dug out my son’s Christmas tree from beneath the stairs weeks ago. He put it up by his dresser, and though he’s 14 and feigning toughness on every front, he’s been falling asleep to Christmas movies most nights. In 2020, that’s just fine, no matter what month it is.