A Single Strand of Lights

Written by T. Marie Bertineau

Indigenous author of the memoir THE MASON HOUSE (Lanternfish Press), a 2021 Michigan Notable Book.

December 14, 2021

The holiday season has come around again, and hope is in full bloom. Just like clockwork, the annual transition from L-tryptophan to Christmas fudge has set off a flurry of sights and sounds. Cars in the Keweenaw are topped with evergreens, drivers rushing home to deck their halls. Holiday music plays in rotation on local radio stations, and church bells chime on schedule. Along the waterfront, a frosty tree gleams a cool blue while downtown, wreaths and garland twinkle at every turn. There are ribbon-wrapped spruce tips and green Grinch cutouts. Why, there’s even a King Kong-sized elf scaling the exterior facade of a boutique hotel. Yes, there is a swell of hope in the air, set aglow by strands of Christmas lights.

In my small town, a little further up the road, the spirit of the season greets me, although a bit less lavishly. It begins with an artificial tree at the tip of Main Street. Each year at the end of November, the tree arrives on the back of a trailer. We watch as volunteers maneuver it into place and string the power cord. Along the lane, wooden light poles are wound with a single strand of multicolored lights—the old-fashioned bulbs, maybe C9s. Growing snowbanks serve as garland. Beyond that, it’s up to the residents to top off the job.

The sights of this town remind me of my childhood. They speak to me of a collective spirit, the kind I knew in my youth. Back then, there was a towering spruce in my hometown’s centre. It was strung with lights by volunteer firefighters and draped in snow by Mother Nature. It grew next to the firehall where every December, Santa held court beneath a wooden arch and welcomed us each with a brown paper sack of sugary treats.

I remember those visits to that firehall as if it were yesterday. My older sisters were placed in charge. We’d dress after supper in a clamor of snow boots and secondhand coats, hats and damp mittens, then tumble out the back door, panting. Our boots trekked the snow-blown path around the corner, down the side of our narrow home, past the slider window with a single strand of Christmas lights taped to ranch casing. The center of the strand was often drooping; the tape would give way. But did I mind? No, not at all. Those lights were a symbol. They filled me with hope. As long as they were lit, that’s all I needed.

I can still hear the crunch of snow beneath our feet, the wsk wsk of coat fabric as our arms swung to and fro. Our noses numbing. Our breath ascending in transparent Os. It all fanned my growing sense of hysteria. “I can’t wait to see Santa!” I would squeal. Then you better hurr’yup, my oldest sister might say. I would scurry ahead, the route filling my well. There were homes lit like runways and windows glowing with electric-orange candelabras. We caught glimpses of glistening trees between drawn drapery panels and full views of those beyond sheers. There were wreaths on porch doors—a touch our home did without—and the occasional Nativity scene, the Baby Jesus in the center tugging at my heartstrings. 

When we’d reach the firehall, the windows were lit, the line long. It snaked around the checkerboard floor. So many kids. Raucous ones. Shy ones. Wealthy ones. Poor ones. We all lined up together, one collective body, eager to see Santa; a queue comprised of the innocence of youth. We, coughing and sneezing, our noses dripping. And he, our idol, anticipating a long night, perhaps a cold in the days to come. But he welcomed us all nonetheless, sat us on his knee, asked for our wishes. And we gushed. Did he know whose Christmas lists would be fulfilled? Did he consider those who might wake to disappointment? I certainly did not, for I believed in the power of Santa. The power of Christmas. The power of hope. And as I neared his side, in those years of naiveté, my wishes were doable. My neighbors’ wishes were doable. There was nothing beyond reach.

When at last it was my turn, I would climb aboard his crushed velvet-clad knee. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” he’d bellow. “And what do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” What does a child say to this man? On the spur of the moment? In his grandeur? With his red suit and curly white beard? This Santa-star. This celebrity. A saint known round the world! And so I’d sit, transfixed by his tall, black boots. Oh, those boots! With their single buckle. Their shiny leather—or was that pleather? Their squared heels which would soon set foot on my rooftop! What were my wishes from year to year? Was it an Easy-Bake Oven? A Crissy doll? A Mrs. Beasley from Family Affair? The world was ripe for the picking as long as I had the hope! And I did.

It has been decades since I’ve paid a visit to that beloved firehall. And certainly decades since I’ve sat on Santa’s knee. I find the years have molded me, mellowed my hope. I look upon holiday wishes differently now, my perspective matured. Though my family finds comfort in the season, I am keenly aware there are those whose stockings won’t be hung, whose trees won’t be lit, whose holidays may fall prey to financial hardship. As a matter of fact, I’ve learned that as children, my siblings and I were mere steps from that scenario ourselves, our Christmases always teetering on the brink. But somehow, we were sheltered from that reality. Our parents managed the undoable, maybe with a little help. Somehow there were gifts. Somehow, turkey. Somehow, Christmas joy. Was it their hope that fueled the magic? Or was it ours?

Perhaps it was that single strand of lights taped in our living room window.

Photo by
Natalie Carolyn Photography

Born amidst the copper mining ruins of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, T. Marie Bertineau is a member of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the L’Anse Reservation, migizi odoodeman. In addition to her Carrot Ranch column, you’ll find Marie’s work online with Minnesota’s Carver County Arts Consortium; in Mino Miikana, a publication of the Native Justice Coalition and Waub Ajijaak Press; and in the annual journal U.P. Reader. Her debut memoir The Mason House (Lanternfish Press, 2020) was named a 2021 Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan and is a recipient of the Stuart D. and Vernice M. Gross Award for Literature (Saginaw Valley State University). Married and the mother of two, she makes her home in Michigan’s Keweenaw.

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  1. noelleg44

    A lovely and very heartfelt story!

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you for reading! Happy holidays to you!

      • noelleg44

        And back to you. This is my favorite holiday and time of year!

  2. Ann Edall-Robson

    Thank you for reminding us it is okay to embrace the memory and the meaning of a single stand of lights.

    The tree in our home is different, I call it our Memory Tree and it hangs on the wall. I made it out of willow branches, twine, and leather strapping. It is adorned with ornaments that each tell a story about a Christmas past. A collection of ornaments made by our now grown children, as well as ones I have hand stitched. Others remind us of special people and memorable moments in our life. Last year we added one in honour of our grandson’s first Christmas. Together, they have become our family’s Christmas story time.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      That sounds just lovely! Such artistry and sentimentality is exactly what the season needs. Thank you for reading! Happy holidays!

  3. denmaniacs4

    My occasionally curmudgeonly heart quite enjoyed this delightful reminiscence. Delightful yet pungent “…I’ve learned that as children, my siblings and I were mere steps from that scenario ourselves, our Christmases always teetering on the brink.” Have a fine safe Christmas…

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      I’m so pleased to hear that your “occasionally curmudgeonly heart” enjoyed this post! Remember the Crissy Doll I mentioned? Well, I did receive that one year, but not from Santa. It came as a refurbished toy from our church. Each year, a member of our parish collected toys, shined them up, and handed them out to the children of needy families . . .
      Seasons blessings to you!

  4. Charli Mills

    Theresa, you returned me to my own childhood, to the tree we cut, to the lights I loved best. Amazing what a single strand of lights can do. I hear that Hancock and Houghton across the canal have both decided to leave up the garlands and lights through MI Tech’s Winter Carnival n February. That makes my Solstice heart happy — ’tis the season of lights. Thank you for the transportation to simpler times that remind us of the power of hope.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you, Charli. Santa is coming to the firehall here in this town very soon, and it reminded me of those days. Fun to remember.

  5. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Somehow over the years I have become a bit of a humbug, indifferent to the stress and press of Christmas. And I enjoyed your post very much. I might even get some lights, especially if I come across those old big ones in all the colors. You pared it down to its essence, this holy day/season of celebrating and renewing light and hope.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Thank you D. And if you’re looking for big, old-fashioned lights, we found ours at W-M. They are ceramic LEDs, but they’re easier on the budget ; ) Enjoy the season in whichever way fills your heart!

      • D. Avery @shiftnshake

        Thank you.
        Here’s hoping you and yours also enjoy the season.

  6. robertawrites235681907

    I am very happy to know that you have good memories of Christmas despite any hardships your parents were enduring. It was the same in my family and my Dad always came up with small gifts for us all and a Christmas meal. He always bought us cherries and whenever I see cherries, I think of Christmas.

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Cherries would be a perfect remembrance of Christmas! I’m glad you have that memory. Thank you for reading! Happy Holidays!

  7. Jules

    We belonged to a volunteer fire company, which for years celebrated with a dinner for all (They probably still do – though after 25 years my hubby retired from that particular volunteer service). Of course in the end gifts were given. It was nice though to also see a Chanukah Menorah. And homemade latkes (potatoe pancakes) in abundance on the festive food table.

    The volunteers continue one of the traditions of having ‘Santa’ in the firetruck tossing candy to different neighborhood children. 🙂 I think there is a notice in the paper or another bulliteen with a time/street guide so one doesn’t have to wait in the cold for too long.

    Merry Berry to all and Happy Holly Daze! ~Jules

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Hello Jules! I replied to your comment earlier, but I’m not seeing it anywhere here, so I’ll try again! Thank you for reading the post and commenting with memories of your volunteer fire company experiences. What a generous gift those meals must have been! And the perfect opportunity to come together in the spirit of the season! Volunteer fire fighters coordinate many of the community activities and events around here, too. I’m grateful for all they do!

      I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season wherever you are!

      • Jules

        Sometimes with WP – I forget to hit the send button 😉

        It is good to have groups that see a need and fulfil it. Be well and enjoy your holidays – Thanks ~Jules

  8. Colleen M. Chesebro

    Theresa, your descriptions transported me back to when I was a girl in Wisconsin. Remember it being so cold that when you breathed in your nose stuck together? LOL! I’ll never forget the rubber snow boots! We used to wear bread bags over our knee socks to keep our feet dry! Thanks for sharing your memories. You reminded me of a few good memories, as well. Happy Yule and Merry Christmas. <3

    • T. Marie Bertineau

      Oh, Colleen! I certainly do remember my nostrils getting stuck together in the cold! LOL! Thanks for that reminder! And honestly, how did our feet stay warm in rubber snow boots? I think we put on three pairs of socks, bread bags, and those boots. Not much to those old things. Some kids had snowmobile boots, but those were expensive. Also, did you happen to have stirrup pants? Everyone in our family had stirrup pants that had an elastic band at the bottom. Those went on first, then our socks over them. That sort of sealed us up, but we weren’t waterproof. It didn’t stop us from playing outside for hours though. Happy holidays, Colleen! Thanks for reading the post!

      • Colleen M. Chesebro

        I forgot about the stirrup pants! Yes! Many pairs of socks, bread bags, and those darn old rubber boots. They were fleece lined but by the end of the season, the fleece was worn away. LOL! I enjoyed this piece so much, Theresa. Thanks so much and Happy Winter Solstice and Merry Christmas. <3

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