December 27, 2004

Austin Notes: 37th Street Lights

Every December, one block of East 37th Street gives a light show that eclipses all the official extravaganzas in town. The residents of this block hang up a display of lights that brings in cars from all over, tying up traffic on the main thoroughfare nearby. It’s not just that there are so many lights, untold thousands of red and blue and green and white bulbs climbing up the lampposts and trees and arching across the street. In addition, each homeowner creates an art work out of Christmas lights. The emphasis is on surreal topical comedy. This year’s lawns have become:

• a life-size Martha Stewart jail cell, with a stuffed Martha (her face a magazine photo), three cellmates, a toilet, a cake with a file, and bars

• an undersea scene with illuminated plastic tropical fish and mermaids, and waterskiing Barbie dolls

• an angel whose wings are the fenders of a VW beetle, holding a metal peace sign as a shield

• a house that’s turned into a volcano, with eruptions every five minutes: smoke rises from the roof peak, and streams of red lights—lava pouring down the house—flash on and off

• a scene from “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” with a certain Saudi Arabian terrorist and a certain recently re–elected Texan as the Grinch’s helpers

• a hedge clipped into the shape of a car (with real headlights); another hedge clipped into a big wave with a surfer riding it, all outlined in white bulbs

• a tour of the gaudiest house’s backyard, where the walls and branches and lawn furniture are strung with bulbs covered with every imaginable kind of small domestic item: prescription vials, Starbuck’s containers, gelato cups, dental floss dispensers, yogurt cups, baby food jars, shot–size liquor bottles—if it’s in your medicine chest or pantry, the chances are it’s been turned into a cover for a Christmas bulb—our middle–class detritus recycled into Christmas joy—and a clothesline hung with dollars donated by visitors to help with the electric bill

No one sponsors this creation, no one funds or licenses it. It’s not listed under “Christmas Events” in “Frommer’s Comprehensive Travel Guide to San Antonio & Austin.” It’s a tradition that grew spontaneously over the years, starting who knows when. And it’s begun to spill over into the neighboring blocks—more houses lighting up each year. Buying a home on this street entails responsibilities.

After New Year’s the residents will haul out their ladders and start taking down lights, just as they hauled out their ladders and put them up a month earlier. (Some of the strands stay up year–round for convenience, but there’s always that new idea to hang, and last year’s to archive.)

Next December the lights will go up again, with displays similar to and different from this year’s, their blooming as much a cyclic life–renewal as the bluebonnets of spring.