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My first reaction when I rounded the curve on Monday night was something beyond pique but short of anger.

There it was, through the gloom -- a small house with trees shining with Christmas lights and a couple of lighted reindeer nosing the grass nearby.

It gave me pause, and that's not even the first glimpse I've had of the 2004 holiday season. Each year, retailers push the beginning of the holidays closer to Halloween. In fact, for the past few years, the ghouls and elves have linked hands in the store aisles and danced. Someone smarter than I should think of a way to combine the decorations for the two. We'd make a killing on the tchotchkes -- which is a Yiddish word and has no place here, I suppose, but still. You'd have to market the geegaws in such a way that consumers could overcome that weird feeling you get when you see the little statue of Santa praying over Baby Jesus in a manger.

I'm not sure how we could do that; I suppose it's just a matter of marketing.

But that's in Retail Land, which constantly overlaps into Reality Land. This year, I saw my first residential Christmas lights a full two weeks ago while driving south on Route 2. Off in the distance, the house was lighted up like, well, a Christmas tree, and I nearly put on the brakes to ponder.

Whatever happened to the unspoken agreement that no matter the pressures from the stores, we would not start decorating for Christmas until after Thanksgiving? When, precisely, is it too early to start celebrating the season?

For completely random reasons, I long ago settled on Dec. 10 -- or thereabouts -- as a good time to tart up the house with tree and lights, and Jan. 2 as a good time to fold up the tent, but that's just me.

Christmas has never been a huge deal in my house. It's a good holiday to do something nice for a change and maybe throw a few (inexpensive) gifts under a tree. I make massive mountains of fudge. We bake cookies. We gather the family and marvel at our good fortune, and that's about it.

As for Christmas lights, we keep them to a minimum. They're a throwback to the last century, anyway, when an enterprising 15-year-old son of a businessman suggested making electric lights for Christmas trees. Sales were slow the first year, but then the teenager, Albert Sadacca, colored the lights red and green, and for years the family's NOMA Electric Co. was the largest in the world.

Today, you can buy Christmas lights -- naughty and nice -- all year round. Market watchers expect sales on seasonal decorations, the third most widely purchased home product, to hit $147 billion for the indoor decorations alone. By "seasonal" they mean Halloween, Thanksgiving and, of course, Christmas. In one study, market watchers say decorators aren't thinking of their neighbors when they light up Rudolph. Instead, they say decorating is actually inner-directed. The decorator is carrying on a family tradition, or making a new one. The decorator is -- and this is telling -- spending "time by myself," an important element of the tradition, according to the "Seasonal Decorating Report, 2004," a survey of 1,000 decorators aimed at marketers and retailers.

Maybe the rest of us, those of us content with one electric candle in one window, are missing something. Maybe in these unsettled times, the answer is to hoist the holiday glitter pole early. I don't see moving past my self-imposed moratorium, but if my neighbors want to start the party early, well, light it up, baby.

To be honest, when I see a garish house during the holidays, I have a weird reaction of disgust and delight. It's kind of like attending a wedding performed underwater. I wouldn't do it myself, but it's a little gratifying to see other people pushing the envelope.

Besides, we need a little Christmas, right this very minute. And many happy returns of the day.

Hartford Courant

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