The Little Lights
Once a year, the day before Christmas Eve, the residents of Lincoln Avenue gather in the Perry family’s garage for our annual luminaria-making party.
This is not a long-standing tradition, passed down from our forebears; it sprang into being, Athena-like, seven years ago, when I was a senior in high school. There were no roly-poly tots who still believed in Santa (this year, at 25, I will be the youngest person there), no village-wide holiday decorating competition to win. We simply decided that we needed a little Christmas, right this very minute, and that we needed to go about it in the most Western New York way possible: by cheerfully bitching at each other while getting drunk in a garage.
In case you aren’t familiar, a luminaria is a small lantern, usually in a paper bag or a milk jug with the top cut off, with a candle inside. (They make electric ones too now, but where’s the fun in that?) They’re popular in Mexico and the American Southwest—places that normally don’t have to worry about an overabundance of rain or snow. So almost the exact opposite of Western New York.
There is a beautiful futility to our luminarias; Lincoln Ave is a dead end, which curves around in such a way that most of the street is hidden from its outlet. But that’s part of the charm, too: our luminarias are just for us.
The same families come every year: the Perrys, of course, and their daughters Danielle, my best friend since I was five, and Suzanne, my longtime babysitter and second mother. The Conrads from next door, and the Durkees from two doors down. The VanSons and the Dunns and the Lavises and the Kohlbergs. Everyone brings cookies and sandwiches and makes small talk while Christmas music plays on the radio. Once assembled, we churn out luminarias on an assembly line so well-organized it would make Henry Ford bite his hat. We call it, affectionately, the Sweat Shop. One constructs a luminaria by folding over the edges of a white paper bag, so the top resembles a neatly cuffed pant leg. This is the hardest part; the women of the street handle this one, with my mother, a retired special education teacher and therefore excellent herder of reluctant crafters, directing over the rim of a glass of chardonnay. Next comes a wedge of cardboard for the bottom, and then exactly a half a teacup of sand. Danielle and I are the resident sand scoopers. Every year, we compete to see who can scoop the fastest while making the least mess. No one ever wins this battle. Finally, Suzanne nestles a candle into each bag’s sand.
We are efficient. We are festive. We are home by 8:30 p.m.
Mr. Perry, a twinkly-eyed former prison cook, has the unfortunate duty of setting out the 200 luminarias the afternoon of Christmas Eve. The next morning, after the elements have had their way with the paper bags, my father collects them. Snow actually helps this process; with snow on the ground, he can drag the garbage bag along behind him on a sled. The Lincoln Ave luminarias shine for less than twenty-four hours, but they’re almost beside the point. It’s the making of the lanterns that constitutes the tradition, not their lights (although the lights are very pretty). It’s the smell of the space heater, and the fact that the Perry garage is the only place all year I see caffeine-free Diet Coke. It’s Mrs. Perry’s gingerbread men and Bea Durkee’s taco dip.
And it’s the knowledge that for one night a year, for less than twenty-four hours, one little street no one drives down in one little village no one passes through glows a little brighter. And that’s really something.
Caitlin Keefe Moran is an editor in New York City. She flails and procrastinates here.
Photo: Larry Lamsa