“The Lights of Christmas”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on December 23, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

My wife loves me.

Mostly.

It’s the middle of December that makes her wonder.

“You see what the neighbors put up this year in the front yard?” she’ll ask. I know where she’s going, so I feign temporary deafness. “Big ‘ol inflatable Santa,” she’ll continue (she’s on to me). “Little elves pop out of the back of the sleigh with a stack of presents. They put out three more light-up reindeer this year, too.”

“Hope Santa’s got something to help cover their electric bill,” I mutter, but she’s way ahead of me.

“You know, at 20.7 cents per kilowatt hour, it’s not all that bad. My mom’s c7 lights (handed down to us on a faux garland), plus your dad’s c9 lights (handed down from my father, quite possibly borrowed from Thomas Edison himself), the 2 strands of 150 mini-lights that we wrap around the trees, 2 strands of LED lights and 2 LED light bulbs only eat up .15730000000000002 kilowatts. That comes out to $0.0325611 an hour. That’s 18 cents a day, $5.40 for the month.”

My wife is far more intelligent than I; with a little math, she’s exposed me for the Grinch I’ve slowly become. In my defense, I wasn’t always this way. I still remember driving with my parents to church every Sunday leading up to Christmas, my brothers and I judging each house’s seasonal decorations and declaring a winner before we hit the parking lot of St. Pius. Reindeer on the lawn were nice, but reindeer on the roof? Bonus points. Each year saw more lights, brighter lights, until for those few weeks a year we were like Alaskans bathed in 24-hour light.

The history of light-up decorations is a recent one. Before the twentieth century, most people didn’t put their Christmas trees up until December 24th because of the fire hazard they represented. (Be sure to read Stratford Fire Marshall Brian Lampart’s article on holiday safety in the December 9th Stratford Star.) In the middle of the 17th century, people attached small candles to the ends of tree branches with wax or pins. With the advent of electric lights, people started putting them up earlier and keeping them up later. By 1882, Edward Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison, hand-wired 80 red, white and blue bulbs and wound them around an evergreen tree. The tradition really took off after President Grover Cleveland set up a lighted Christmas tree at the White House in 1895.

Early bulbs needed to be wired together by professionals until 1903, when American Eveready Co. came out with the first Christmas light set that included screw-in bulbs and a plug for the wall socket. Still, the person responsible for popularizing Christmas tree lighting in America was a 15-year-old boy named Albert Sadacca. After candles on a tree resulted in a tragic New York City fire in 1917, Albert convinced his family to paint and string their novelty lights together for use on Christmas trees. Albert soon became the head of a multi-million dollar company, and neighborhoods across the country began a front yard decorating competition that continues to this day.

If you need proof, walk along California Street toward Barnum Avenue at night. Thousands of blinking, twinkling lights vie for attention with inflatable reindeer and giant candy canes along a Christmas corridor that houses on both sides have spent days preparing. Notice the cars that slow down to take in the view, the families that stroll through the neighborhood with dazzled kids in tow. In a season of excess, these displays offer so much for so little.

And so I got a few more strands of light this year and strung them up with a little more care. I won’t win any contests, but for $5.40 maybe I can add some holiday cheer to my neighborhood. I wish you and yours a happy and healthy holiday season.

“Calling Us Names”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on December 16, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

One of the things I love about writing this column is reading the letters that readers are kind enough to send me about my pieces. Chris R. recently wrote to ask about an article of mine, “The Hair of the Dog That Licked Ya.” She noted that I referenced “The Town for All Seasons,” and wondered when and why Stratford changed this as our town slogan. Indeed, many were surprised back in 2007 when Mayor Miron announced our new slogan would be, “Offering More from Forest to Shore.” Was there really a need to change the slogan and the accompanying signage around town while mired in an economic downturn?

To answer, it’s important to understand the potential impact of effective town slogans. In 1993, the state of Wisconsin commissioned a study on town slogans and determined that slogans not only help in establishing a civic identity but also attract outsiders to the community and provide economic value.  Historically, slogans were developed because of a significant event (“Birthplace of the Ice Cream Sundae”) or because of natural resources in the area (“Chocolate City USA”). Gradually, they became an important element of town identity. Locally, some became self-fulfilling (Hartford is the “Insurance Capital of the World”) while others have become a bit more ironic (Bridgeport remains “The Park City”).

Over time, slogans began to change. In some cases, it was because other communities had the same slogan: Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania have long claimed to be the “Groundhog Capital,” while Burlington, Wisconsin and Hershey, Pennsylvania have a running feud as to who is truly the “Chocolate Capital.” These seemingly silly disagreements matter: if a slogan gets used enough and is properly marketed, it gets known outside the community. When someone mentions The Big Apple, The Windy City, or Gateway to the West, people generally know what community they are talking about. Stratford itself had a lot of competition with it’s somewhat pedestrian slogan, with West Brookfield Massachusetts, Smith Center, Kansas, and Galeton, Pennsylvania just a few of those who referred to themselves as “A Town For All Seasons.”

The Wisconsin study shows that slogan-related festivals, especially those in small communities, unify residents to work together and support the effort. With this in mind, in 2007 Mayor Miron decided to leverage the potential power of our town slogan to highlight the strategic advantages of living, visiting and doing business in Stratford. The many festivals Stratford has hosted in the last few months, many of which I mentioned in previous articles, seem to embody the town’s attempt to offer “more from forest to shore.”

Reached for comment, Mr. Miron explained that he spearheaded the effort after studying other communities and realizing that “A Town for All Seasons,” while catchy, did not necessarily mean anything. He wanted to juxtapose the town’s physical assets with its human assets, celebrating the great diversity not only of our geography but our work force. It was meant to be a part of a branding effort to enhance the town’s image, which explains the new entrance signs, promotional brochures, and municipal letterhead.

Ultimately, decisions like these come down to a matter of opinion, but it’s clear that town slogans have the potential to have a great impact. However, whether you like the new slogan or not, just remember it could be worse! A few of the more interesting choices from our neighbors around the country: Gettysburg, South Dakota (“Where the battle wasn’t”), Superior, Wisconsin (“I’m a Superior lover”), Manhattan, Kansas (“The Little Apple”), San Andreas, California (“It’s not our fault”), Hereford, Texas (“Town without a toothache”), and Bushnell, South Dakota (“It’s not the end of the Earth, but you can see it from here”).

No slogan could ever truly capture the many advantages we enjoy living in Stratford, as we all know the sheer number of those advantages could never be summed up in only one sentence. Besides, the best slogan is already taken: Madisonville, Kentucky has the slogan, “The best town on Earth.”