Mike Miller is passing out ballots for St. Anthony Village's annual holiday lighting contest. "Nine people entered," remarks Miller, the vice president of the St. Anthony Village Chamber of Commerce. "That's the most I can remember." This small city northeast of downtown Minneapolis is one of the few places in the Twin Cities that still holds such an event.
"You'll notice that a high score is 10," Miller explains, fiddling with his brightly colored Santa Claus tie. "There's space next to each address so you can change scores if you need to, because you might see something else as we go along and think, 'Hey, this is better than that one was.'" The other judges--Miller's wife Judy, George Wagner, executive director of the St. Anthony Chamber of Commerce, and St. Anthony Fire Chief Joel Hewitt--nod as they each grab a fire-station clipboard and head out into the blowing snow toward the car.
Two winners will be chosen tonight. Each will receive a check for $100 from the Chamber of Commerce. Contestants will be judged on "originality, detail, quantity, and quality of display," according to the score sheets. "We do have one new stipulation about the contest this year, though," Miller hastens to explain. "People can't win two years in a row, so people who won last year aren't eligible this time. We had the same people winning over and over. So in the interest of fairness, we made this rule." These contests were all the rage back before the energy crisis of the Seventies, but these days they're almost an anachronism.
Judging people's Christmas lights is a complex and subjective task. After all, who's to say that one neighbor's light-up Jesus flanked by glowing tin soldiers is better than another's plastic Santa and plywood wise men? There would be no problem if hanging up lights and putting out plastic figurines and mangers was all about good cheer and glad tidings. But the fact is, people take these things very seriously. Regardless of whether the prize is cash or a plaque, in some cities the losers in these contests have gone so far as to sue amidst rumblings that competitions were rigged.
"I can't recall anything like that ever happening around here," says Miller, pulling out onto the slippery streets of St. Anthony. Wagner offers directions from the back seat. The first stop is Autumn Woods of St. Anthony, a giant apartment complex and the only entrant that is not a single-family home. "Oh, this is really beautiful," Judy Miller exclaims as the car pulls into the parking lot. Icicle lights frame the front of the building, and seemingly endless strands wrap bushes, trees, and light fixtures. Off to one side a family of mechanized deer made from the same white lights move their heads in a spooky, glowing-skeleton sort of way, as if they see the car coming.
"It's hard to give that a number until we see some more," Mike Miller opines, but Hewitt has already given the place a nine and a quick peek at Wagner's sheet reveals a ten even though he's muttering in a low voice: "White lights. I like colored lights."
Driving away, Wagner leans across the seat to get a better look at a nearby apartment building that's decked out in a hodgepodge of primary colors. "I like that place there," he says, gesturing at the trimmed balcony railings and window frames. "They have a lot of displays that the tenants did on their own."
The next house is a dud. No one says much as they stare at a big star made out of lights tacked to the backboard of a basketball hoop. The judges drive on. Hewitt gives them a three, "for effort."
At the next house, icicle lights hang from the eaves. The front lawn boasts a gargantuan nativity scene in which pure white statues of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus are huddled together as if they were carved out of the same unearthly bar of soap. To their right, pasted to the front of the garage, is a sign written in wobbly black marker: "Christ is Born." Hewitt scrawls a five with a plus sign on his sheet, wondering aloud whether he's being too critical.
So far, Judy Miller's favorite is the Autumn Woods apartments. But everyone sucks in their breath as the car approaches the next house, which looks more like a department-store window display than someone's front yard. Luminarias light a path across the lawn to a full-size sleigh in which Santa and a bunch of snow-covered stuffed animals are riding. There are lights--including the requisite icicle lights--everywhere. But the crown jewel is a mannequin family--mom, dad, three kids, and a puppy--posed as if to decorate a Christmas tree not far from the sleigh. Dressed in winter coats and snowsuits, the family looks oddly realistic.
"He won two years ago if my recollection is right," Mike Miller says. "I know those kids and the tree are new."
"Oh no they're not," Wagner disagrees, contending that all he can see that's different are "a few new lights on the fence." He looks out the window for a moment before continuing. There's a bit of an edge to his voice as he finishes his thought. "Well, I don't think there's anything in the village as good as this," he says. Hewitt gives the house a nine with a plus sign next to it and the judges drive on.
The next few houses are all right, but the comments don't rise above the level of "Oh, that's nice." Or, "Well, that's very traditional." Fives and sixes are given all around as Wagner tells a story about how his neighbor copies every decorating idea Wagner tries. "I put up a wreath and he puts up a wreath. I put up green lights and he goes out and gets some. The other day I was out putting something up and he said, 'Oh, no. No more.'"
Judy Miller thinks the next house, the one with lights strung all over the trees, is beautiful. Hewitt thinks it's a little showy.
"All those white lights again," Wagner mutters. "I like colored lights much more." And then he says something that catches everyone's attention. "Well, you can say this much. This display is original but that other one [at the mannequin house] is professionally done."
"Wait," Hewitt interrupts. "You mean that guy has people come in and help him with all of that?"
"Yes," Wagner says, leaning forward. "That's what I've heard, although I've never actually seen it. That's what I've heard."
"Well, we'll have to take that into consideration," says Hewitt, already scratching out the nine plus on his score sheet and making a little note that reads "prof. done."
"I like white lights," Judy Miller says, passing an icicle-bedecked rambler on the way to the next to the last house. "Oh, here it is," she says, leaning forward to get a better look. "Back up, back up! I can't see the whole thing." Her husband obliges, and the car rolls back, revealing the full splendor of the yard. An angel stands on the roof as a lighted Santa and reindeer fly at an angle toward the sky. "Look at that," Judy Miller says, pointing at the house. "The deer's legs are moving back and forth."
"I didn't see that before," Mike Miller says with a little laugh. "I wonder if they just turned those on as we pulled up."
The judges sit, taking in the whole scene: The wooden wise men and their camels; the word JOY projected onto the garage door; the bulbs in all the bushes--colored lights at last!--and a big spear-thing that sort of looks like a crab with lights all over it in the front yard. Judy Miller points at the unusual decoration and asks what it is. No one knows, but Mike Miller thinks it might be "long sticks made to look like a fan." The foursome agrees that it's beautiful in its own strange way.
The last house was another dud. Everyone joked a bit about it, until Mike Miller jumped in. "Well, it's probably their first year decorating."
Back at the St. Anthony Fire Station, each of the judges considers his or her votes one last time. At last, Mike Miller passes the scores around for everyone to see. "Well, there are no ties," he remarks. "That's good." Autumn Woods, the apartment complex, and the JOY house with the stick fan were the winners.
"And to think," Miller says after checking with Wagner on the whereabouts of the chamber of commerce's checkbook, "that house just entered today at the last minute."