The big innovation in holiday decorating this year is the drive-thru Christmas lighting display. Which is excellent news. If you’re like me and don’t want to get out of the car at all, congratulations: You have one more reason now to sit in the car and cry for 15 minutes. Tears of joy! Tears of joy! ‘Tis the season! Thanks to the pandemic, which has become a virtual renaissance of vehicular sloth, we can now shop, eat, work, go to the movies, attend concerts and get tested for disease without ever releasing our seat belts.
Still, you’re wondering, a drive-thru Christmas display, is it for someone like me?
My answer is: Are you familiar with walking and looking? Well, this is easier!
Here’s what you do at these new and improved drive-thru holiday displays: You get in your car. You make sure to have enough gas (you will wait in traffic). You find a drive-thru display. You drive in and a teenager with a flashlight tells you to buy tickets online and they can’t accommodate you and your screaming child right now. You pull over and try to buy tickets online, but it’s sold out tonight, and tomorrow night. Also, the next three nights. So you return home and sit in your car alone for an hour. One week later, when they fit you in, you drive five miles per hour through an open space draped in thousands of lights, which blink to Christmas music played by the display’s low-watt radio station.
“But can I hear the butt song?”
That’s my 4-year-old daughter. She asked this as we approached Let It Shine, the drive-thru display in the parking lot of Northbrook Court (through Jan. 9, 2021; shinelightshow.com). Tickets were $30 because it was a weekday; weekends are $40, but for those too busy celebrating Jesus’ birth to be considerate, a $55 fast-pass will whisk you past the poor but humble. Oh, the butt song — that’s “Baby Got Back,” which is a holiday standard in our car. We promised to play it again, just as soon as daddy drove five miles per hour for 20 minutes behind 75 Teslas, listening to hip hop “holiday classics” and selections from “Frozen” on a low-watt signal.
“Daddy, it’s full of stars!”
That’s also my 4-year-old.
She was agog at the dazzlingly intricate patterns of light unfurled in thick ribbons, the pulsing snowflakes, the LED reindeers that pranced over the car as we passed through a tunnel of light. But what I actually heard was, “My God, it’s full of stars,” that cryptic line from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which is a decent reference point for Let It Shine. You move slowly through waves of colors that nuzzle you into a stupor for 15 minutes, then you leave feeling empty and confused. That North Shore teenagers aren’t getting stoned and driving their 2019 Jeeps through this right now — I think — speaks to the well-adjusted youth of today. Either that or they’re waiting for Burning Man, at which Let It Shine would not look out of place. On the other hand, it’s such an oddly antiseptic way to celebrate warmth, I was also reminded of that scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Linus and Charlie Brown visit a Christmas tree lot and the trees are cold, angular and metal. As if underlining this point, a PF Chang’s hovers just beyond the nativity.
Of course, a drive-thru holiday experience is no newer than a commercialized Christmas. There’s one on a Northern Ohio farm that’s been going for more than 60 years; there’s one in Virginia pushing 30. Not to mention, there have always been neighborhoods where the Christmas spirit is so elaborate and large that driving though, slowly and steadily, in a kind of happy traffic, as the kids hang out of the windows like golden retrievers, can be just as immersive as any organized drive-thru display.
For decades, in the Chicago area, from about 1943 to 1973, the gold standard of amateur drive-thru displays was Candy Cane Lane in the Dunning neighborhood — specifically along Nottingham Avenue, off Harlem, which was lined with towering candy canes for blocks, each home a massive lighting bill waiting to happen. (Indeed, it’s said ComEd, concerned with the amount of energy being expended during the energy crisis of the 1970s, provoked the decline of Candy Cane Lane.) Then again, Candy Cane Lanes are sort of like Homes of Rock ‘n’ Roll — everywhere has one. These days, if you prefer to spend $40 on presents for the kids, not on Christmas displays, Hillside Avenue in Elmhurst is pretty cute — one home has an Olaf doing figure-eights all night on the front lawn. The Sauganash/Edgebrook neighborhood on the Far Northwest Side is another charmer. So many homes here have bejeweled reindeer, garlands of golds and reds and sentinel nutcrackers, the few darkened homes stand out like broken teeth.
Tunnels of lights — the big WOW! in most drive-thru displays — form naturally in neighborhoods like these. Peer down the right street and it’s a mirage of Hollywood design, as if set decorators snuck in the night before to scrub familiar streets down to a soft glow. And all it takes is a house or two, preferably neighbors, to generate that effect. It’s hard to know if you’re being reminded of a warm childhood Christmas lodged in your brain or a warm Christmas in Vancouver via the Hallmark Channel. Either way, it’s ready for Instagram. Though you don’t think of abstraction being especially popular in working-class Chicago neighborhoods (where many of the smartest displays have always been found), that’s often what you’re looking at — shapes, colors and forms without definition, only feeling. The wonder comes out of stumbling on something so cheerful and unexpected.
All the pandemic did was formalize this.
So, in Los Angeles this uneasy holiday, Dodger Stadium has a drive-thru light display. The Minnesota State Fairgrounds has one, too. In Bethel, N.Y., on the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival, there’s “Peace, Love & Lights” for cars only. The Dallas Zoo has drive-thru lights. As do racing speedways in the South and parks in New England.
Northbrook, the most awkwardly contrived, has the charm of, well, a shopping mall — though, to be fair, a shopping mall is not without its charm at the holidays. The drive-thru at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle — titled “Illumination,” winding through two miles of campus — is classier, the music traditional, the lighting effects just shy of a Beyonce concert impressive. But if the music wasn’t there for context, I’m not sure fields of pulsing pod people (I think), chandeliers dangling in trees and disco-ball-ish reflections shout Christmas. It does look cool, though. Like the scene in a Disney movie where the heroine communes with her dead elders and the magic forest unleashes fancy confetti.
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