Dec. 23, 2011
SOMERVILLE, Mass. — In Somerville, holiday lights are a big deal. Every year, the arts council puts on the Illuminations Tour, a fundraiser around the city to tour the brightest and blingiest houses. This month all 36 trolleys sold out a good week in advance.
Drive by the Mansfield house on Grove Street in Davis Square and you’ll see an entire inflatable Santa’s workshop. Santa is motorized, he plays golf and there are at least seven wreaths, a nativity scene, and snowmen bobbing their head in unison. Snoopy gets in on the action on a seesaw and a menorah fits in for that ecumenical touch. Last year, the city honored the lights with an official citation.
Tina Sylvain, 26, has long known the family that puts on this display. She had brought her daughter, Lexie Sanchez, to see the show.
“They were always the best house in the neighborhood — for Christmas, Halloween, always. The boys do [an] awesome job,” she said. “It’s always one thing you look forward to when the season comes around.”
It takes power to run a display like this. John Mansfield, 38, and his brothers took over the decorations for their mother Mary after their father Edward died in 1999.
“We start the lights right after Halloween. Last year I actually started in September and brought in the Nativity Scene, Santa Claus, and repainted all of them,” he said. This year the brothers added a complicated PVC piping system to hang even more lights on the house. John counted it up: Installing the show took 10 six- to seven-hour days.
Who decorates — and who doesn't
The future of this tradition, however, might fall dim due to Somerville’s changing demographics. In the last 20 years, the city has become a hot place to live… with fewer kids and more twenty-somethings. Many of them, it seems, aren’t putting lights on their houses at all. Though many tour blockbusters remain, many streets between them were awfully dark.
If you read the arts council's commemorative Illuminations booklet, you’ll see that the featured decorators come from a few countries — the mid-century wave of Somerville immigration. It’s them and their grown children, like John Mansfield.
“I think originally there was the Italian, Portuguese and then the Irish population that was here and mostly the Italians and the Portuguese would always have — at least my friends who were Italian or Portuguese — would do their houses up with Christmas lights,” he remembered.
WGBH News asked a number of Somerville newcomers whether or not they decorated their houses — and not one of them did. The reasons are plenty: It seems like too much trouble, some said, or they weren’t Christian. It’s not green. They visit their families out of state. The end of the semester gets too hectic. They rent. They didn’t grow up with it.
As old-timers leave, some festive houses go dark
Sylvain did grow up with the decoration tradition, just around the corner from the Mansfields on Winslow Ave.
“We always did it,” she said. “It’s not like we were in competition but we always had so much stuff also — everything. Always trying to add more stuff every year.”
Her family doesn’t decorate on Winslow Ave. anymore. They sold the house, Sylvain said, “and everyone went their own different ways.”
Committed to lighting up the dark
The Mansfield display, though, just keeps going and growing.
“Even though our mother says we go a little too far, I think she gets a little extra special Christmas feeling. And it’s almost something that’s expected,” John said. Every year, when the holidays start to come around, people ask the Mansfields about the design for this year’s lights. “There’s a certain amount of — in a good way — a certain amount of pressure.”
John, unexpectedly, may be part of the changing landscape himself. He too has left Somerville, for Watertown. And what does he have up to decorate his own home?
“Almost nothing,” he admitted. “I have a Christmas tree up. And I have — um, that’s about it.” He compared it to the guy who works in a pizza place but doesn’t eat pizza. He added, “Eventually, if I have children, I’m sure I’ll be the crazy guy in that neighborhood, wherever we end up.“
Until then, he’s adding a kilowatt of brightness to winter in Somerville… if not in Watertown.
The question of energy and expense
When asked about the dimming of Christmas and Hanukkah lights in Somerville, several people offered a theory that makes perfect sense in our strapped economic times.
“I think it’s money,” said Susan Fontano, a lifelong resident of East Somerville. She thought people might be trying to pinch pennies wherever they can. She left the lights off her second-story porch this year... but… it wasn’t to save cash. They just never got around to it, she said.
Along with the money, there’s the energy use. Holiday lights definitely seemed environmentally unfriendly to young activist Barry Rafkind, a relative newcomer to the city.
It turns out, however, that holiday lights might not be all that heavy a drain on either the wallet or the grid. Somerville city spokesman Tom Champion said in an email, “The switch to LED lights means that you can go crazy with external Christmas decorations and still use only a fraction of the power needed for the old incandescent filament technology.” The city is hanging more lights every year, but since they’re using LEDs as much as possible, “our holiday power consumption is going down in kilowatt hours if not actual cost.”
And one of the biggest decorating families agreed: The Mansfields' huge display costs less, Mary Mansfield said, then turning on the a/c in the summer.
Sign-up for WGBH News updates, WGBH promotions, and previews of what's coming up on WGBH TV.