Thursday, 18 December 2014

1973: The Dark Christmas

LOOKING DOWN SOUTHWEST BROADWAY IN PORTLAND, DURING THE ENERGY CRISIS SHOWS LIMITED LIGHTING ON A MISTY EVENING - NARA - 555446
This Christmas I'm remembering a December 41 years ago, when the one-two punch of an OPEC oil embargo and a dry summer in my hydro-powered state caused electric rates to soar. That winter President Nixon extended Daylight Savings Time in a bid to conserve energy reserves. It didn't, but it did make all us kids get yards of reflective tape sewn to our coats and carry flashlights to our half-lit and -heated schools, because the morning commute was pitch black.

That crisis, which set the tone for the entire decade, swims in shadows in my memory: the dim classrooms, the wet, coal-black streets, the miners' headlamps my parents bought us for the walk to the bus stop. And especially, that drab, apocalyptic Christmas.

That year, Americans were enjoined by patriotic duty to eschew all festive lights, outside and in. (The power bill alone would have beaten any renegades unconscious, but they'd likely not have survived that long; citizenry that winter gave themselves wholeheartedly to rousing rounds of Finger-The-Slacker, Siphon-The-Gas-Tank, Flush-The-Hoarder, and other Serlingesque sport normally reserved for wartime.) Some jurisdictions went even further; neighbouring – and equally dam-dependentOregon straight-up outlawed electrical expressions of good cheer, and in fact, lighted displays of any kind.

That year my family forwent our traditional single string of outside lights that didn't even span the front of the house, and instead of lighting the Christmas tree, we strung garlands of cranberries and popcorn with needle and thread. In this way, I learned three important life lessons:

1. It takes forever to string popcorn and cranberries with a needle and thread.

2. You'd think the birds would be all over that when you hang the garlands in the yard on New Year's Day, but in reality they could give a crap.

And…

3. Garlands of any kind are in no sense or capacity, by any law of morality or aesthetics, anywhere in the Universe, a substitute for Christmas tree lights.

I've mentioned before that it takes such penury – properly lived – to give the ordinary its due shine and worth. Fact is, I've remained a huge Christmas lights fan ever since, and never miss an opportunity to darken the room and bask in the glow of a fully-decorated, suitably illuminated tree.

I don't know why these recollections are so acute this year, but to honour them, I believe this Christmas I'll stand in my front yard and shake my cane at passing teenagers, shouting, "YOU SPOILED-ROTTEN BRATS!!! JUST WAIT TILL SOME ARAB TURNS THE GAS OFF ON YOUR DAMNED CHRISTMAS!!! WE'LL SEE HOW YOU SMART-MOUTHED NAMBY-PAMBIES GET BY!!!

Call it old-man carolling.


(Adapted from Growing Up Home, copyright RK Henderson. Photo of downtown Portland -- famous for its luminous holiday city-centre -- in the 1973 dark, courtesy of David Falconer, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and Wikimedia Commons.)
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