At the end of each November, the Phillipsons toss a single desk lamp high into the lone pine tree in their front yard in south Minneapolis. Then they toast their outdoor holiday light display with a round of hot toddies. The family embraces the seasonal urge to bring light to the long nights, but they're loath to overdo it.
"We bought that lamp for $2.25 at the Goodwill in 1987," says Dan Phillipson. "It's supposed to be a reading lamp, but we just use it for the tree. People passing by often slow down and stare. I hope they enjoy it as much as we do."
Across town in St. Paul, Ray Merriwell feels the Christmas spirit take hold as soon as the last trick-or-treater leaves his front stoop on Halloween night. Within 24 hours he's dragging his manger pieces to the boulevard, spreading hay on the ground, and positioning the life-size figures.
"I don't have my Joseph anymore," Merriwell says. "Some little bastard stole him. I stick a cardboard cutout of Bret Favre in there instead. I got it from a sporting-goods store in Milwaukee after he quit the Packers. My Mary is still in good shape, but the plastic Jesus had a pallet of roofing shingles fall on him, so I'm using a Tickle Me Elmo doll temporarily. The rest of the manger is fairly authentic, however. My schnauzer's been crapping in there, which pisses me off, but there probably was some animal scat in that original manger anyway, so what the heck."
The Hagemans in Mendota Heights get an early start on decorating as well. They cover their garage in blinking icicle lights as a tribute to their grandpa who fell off the roof last year and died.
"He was stringing lights when his ladder slipped," says his son Troy. "I heard him yelling, but I was watching a Vikings game and couldn't get out there till halftime. By then it was too late. It's funny because years before that his dad also died putting up Christmas lights. In that case it was electrocution or something. They didn't find his body for a long time because his wife had dementia and didn't recall ever marrying.
"Anyway, we feel we need to carry on this tradition as a sort of tribute to both of these fellas. 'Course I won't string the lights myself. I get neighbor kids to do it. I tell them if they don't, they won't be allowed on our ice rink all winter."
Ted Rosenbaum is Jewish, and his house and yard in St. Louis Park remain dark and unadorned throughout the holidays. But with his two gift stores in Minnetonka and another in Hopkins, he says Jesus has proven to be his savior as well.
"Couldn't handle tuition without him," Rosenbaum tells his four children. "Remember that when you're complaining about the carolers."
The carolers visiting the Rosenbaums each December include Jean Westbrook and her sister Kay. They cover a three-block area, one night each week, with their Baptist choir.
"I just learned they were Jews last month," Jean says. "I don't think they've always been, have they? I have a feeling at least one of the daughters would like to get out. I don't know how one does that, exactly, but our minister says we shouldn't get involved. I guess it's in God's hands."
Jean admits that the caroling group would sound better if her sister Kay didn't participate, but she doesn't want to hurt her sibling's feelings.
"Kay can't sing a lick," Jean says. "She's flat and nasally. I've asked her in the past to mouth the words and let the rest of us hit the notes, but she gets pouty and tells me the only reason I sing better is because my smaller breasts allow my lungs to expand more."
The songs wafting through the atrium of the Inver Grove Shopping Mall are the very same songs Jean and Kay sing and the same tunes the mall's been offering since it was built back in 1974. Eric Hill programs the overhead sound system and says, "There are only 12 or 13 decent Christmas songs out there. The best anyone can do is dig up some new versions here and there and keep that rotation churning.
"The season's circling around again," Hill says. "And we know it so damn well by now. One way or another I think we all have our respective marching orders for December. Why fight it? It's in our blood now. It's part of our bones."