Holiday Hooligans

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from Yankee Magazine, December 2003 

It was first period. I was bored. I gazed out the classroom window, and just before my eyes went out of focus, I saw it: a beautiful spruce tree right at the edge of the parking lot.

On an ordinary day I wouldn’t have noticed it, but this was deep in the holiday season, and in my small New England town it did not feel like Christmas. Instead of snow, we had t-shirt temperatures. And the weather wasn’t the only thing dampening seasonal cheer. In the next week I had to research and write an entire term paper, juggle homework, a play, and a chorus concert, and fight off that incessant voice in my head telling me to sleep. Even my dog, Maggie, had turned against the spirit of the season, shredding the lights that usually adorn our porch.  This year, Christmas had gotten stuck at the bottom of the pile. My classmates seemed to be in the same predicament: a bunch of adolescent drones wallowing through their everyday routine. Were we all doomed to become more boring with every year we grew older?

But as my eyes fixed on that big evergreen, I saw something new. This wasn’t just a spruce tree. It was a Christmas tree. How could I not have seen it before? And why didn’t anyone else see it?

It was time for something drastic.  

     

Twelve o’clock that night, my friend Dane and I were staring at my Christmas tree again. An evening rain had just passed when I slid open the van door. We had all the supplies: extension cords, duct tape, and four strings of Christmas lights. We were about to send a bright beacon to our humdrum high school. The only thing between us and the luminous spirit of the season was forty feet of wet, prickly spruce.       

“Why don’t you just climb it?” Dane joked. I pushed through the dirty branches and grabbed the first limb, just to demonstrate how stupid that would be. But when I got halfway up the tree I realized it was no longer a joke.

“Toss me the first string,” I hollered down. After a few attempts I snagged it. The tree began to sway as I climbed to the top. I hugged the dwindling trunk while I tied the string to the highest limb.

For the next hour we wound the lights down to the foot of the tree. We were almost done, but there was still one ingredient missing: electricity. We stretched the extension cords across the driveway and knelt at the wall outlet. We held our breath. One……two……     

The tires on the driveway pavement rumbled like thunder. In slow motion, a gray Crown Victoria appeared. I knew we weren’t doing anything wrong, but where police were concerned, I didn’t know how much that was worth.

The cop lowered his window as he pulled up beside us. “You guys want to tell me what you’re doing?”

I knew how stupid it would sound. “We were, uh, putting Christmas lights on the tree,” Dane mumbled. I confirmed this with a nod.

“You expect me to believe that?” the cop said. “Come on guys, what kind of a prank are you trying to pull?” I offered to plug the lights in and show him. He called for backup. Soon, a second patrol car came barreling the wrong way down the school’s one-way driveway. After being briefed on the situation, the second officer told us to stand in front of his headlights. Then he retired to his car. In the glare of the lights I saw that I was soaking and covered with grime. After a moment, we started laughing. It was the stupidest thing we had ever done, and we knew it was worth it.

The cops spent fifteen minutes in their cars, probably checking our names against some international watch list. Then they called one of us to each car. “I’m giving you a $77 fine for simple trespass,” Number One said to me, “and you’ll have to take down the lights.” He paused, and I stood there in a calm, controlled rage. Then, to my surprise, he continued. “Were you guys almost done?”

“Yes,” I stammered.“Why don’t you plug ’em in and have a look.” Still wary, the police watched us walk to the outlet and kneel once more. The moment of truth. One……two…… three. Without a sound, the tree lit up the dreary parking lot. The officers stepped out of their cruisers, and the four of us gazed in silence. Our hostility vanished, and in its place we found the Christmas spirit we’d been missing. I had been branded as a criminal, but I felt like an innocent little kid. Then, with the pull of a plug, the light vanished. We pulled off the strings and left in silence.

A few days later, I pulled the ticket out of my jacket pocket. It was disappointing to think that our beacon of joy could never shine for my schoolmates. But I knew that at least it lived for the four of us. I filled out the check between bites of a freshly baked Christmas cookie. Bing Crosby crooned “White Christmas” through my stereo speakers. As I slid the check into the envelope I noticed the blank memo line. I pulled it out and added the only thing appropriate for the situation: Merry Christmas. 

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