A string of illuminated glass bulbs, hung for the holidays, may seem like no big deal, so common it's easy to pass them without really noticing. But we humans are simple beings who sometimes communicate best in the most basic ways.
Lights on a cold, dark night can be a welcome, even heartwarming sight. And in gloomy economic times, or other trying circumstances, they can mean even more.
One study found that outdoor holiday displays can tell a lot about a neighborhood. Whether found in wealthy or working-class areas, they represent a community's spirit or "social capital," even indicating how well neighbors care for one another, says David Sloan Wilson, a professor in Binghamton University's departments of biology and anthropology.
"One way that neighborhoods express their feelings of neighborliness is to decorate the house, not the inside but the outside," Wilson says. "It is an expression of goodwill, basically."
A simple gesture, yes — but one that touches and comforts people, and brings them together.
Here are a few stories about the impact holiday lights can have, from a big city neighborhood that united to light its main street to a small town that came together to try to brighten the holiday for a dying boy.
It was as if Scrooge had invaded New York's Harlem neighborhood. Or so residents implied.
Facing an impossibly tight budget, the board that oversees the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, 125th Street, made a difficult decision: It cut funding for holiday lights.
When residents saw their normally festive business district looking spiritless, they complained, loudly.
"It was a bad Christmas in the office," recalls Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District. The lack of holiday lights last December had riled residents more than any issue in recent memory.
This year, with the budget woes persisting, Askins had an idea. What if she and her staff could persuade the community to donate the $60,000 needed to decorate the entire length of the street?
The "Harlem, Light It Up" campaign began this fall, with fundraising parties and even a song and music video.
Big donations came in from nearby Columbia University and the City College of New York. Businesses, churches and community organizations pitched in. Residents gave what they could, the smallest amount $10.
It added up quickly. And the lights — many of them incorporated in new sparkling decorations of snowflakes and shooting stars — were purchased and installed along the bustling street.
Earlier this month, on a bitterly cold night, hundreds of people filled a neighborhood plaza for the official lighting. They cheered. They drank cocoa and hot apple cider provided by local businesses.
It had all been worth it, Askins thought, smiling to herself. And the feeling was confirmed the next day when she received an e-mail from a longtime 125th Street resident who thanked her.
The street, the woman wrote, "feels like home now."
Birds of a Feather
The retirees of Loon Lake Lane and surrounding streets in Lincoln, Calif., are a close flock.
After moving in six years ago, one neighbor handed out wooden cutouts of ducks that he'd made. People painted them and put them in their yards. Some had lights. Some included tiny ducks to represent their grandchildren.
By the time they finished, there were 99 ducks.
Imagine, then, what it's like during the holidays at this retirement village north of Sacramento.
There's a time each year when everyone lines the streets with "luminarias," small lanterns made with brown paper bags filled with a bit of sand and a tea light candle. And folks put out decorative deer — then kid each other when a wind gust blows one over. But what neighbors have always liked are strings of lights.
Trouble was, rising utility bills were cramping the styles of these retirees — until they noticed the solar panels going up at Tom Zurek's house two years ago. Before long, several in the flock followed.
Now 85 percent of their electric power comes from the sun gathered by a system called SunRun, and holiday displays on Loon Lake Lane are among the most lavish in the area.
Some have gone "absolutely crazy" with lights, Zurek says. As the holidays approach, the neighbors, who normally play golf or get together for poker, share electrical cords and assistance.
"Everybody is here to help everybody," the 62-year-old retiree says. "It's just a cohesive group. I've never been in a social environment like this one."
Zurek, who monitors their solar power supply, says this year his electric bills have totaled less than $100, even with all the holiday lights.
Lights, With Honor
Matt Matdes, a New York firefighter, knows all about heroes.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, he and his co-workers have become symbols of bravery for a nation. But for him, it's all about the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces.
Matdes still remembers his grandfather talking about going off to World War II and missing his first Christmas with his own son, Matdes' father. So Matdes, who also owns a seasonal decorations store on the side, was quick to volunteer when he heard about the Decorated Family Program for military families that his store's parent company began seven years ago.
He gathered up his brother and some buddies one recent Saturday and headed to Hempstead, N.Y., to put string after string of lights on the home of Shelia Irby, a member of the Air Force reserve. All of the decorations were donated by him.
They were there because Irby's 21-year-old son had submitted his mom's name, since she had been away for the past two Christmases on active duty.
"This is our first real Christmas together in a long time," son Rayvon Johnson, a college student, says. "I wanted it to be special."
He also wanted the lights to be a surprise, so Matdes and his crew put them up when Irby was away for the weekend.
"Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness!" she exclaimed when she first saw the lights, which trimmed the roof line and windows.
She took photos of them. She hugged her son. And even now, she continually peeks out at the lights and finds herself smiling.
"Lights, to me, are about joy," she says. "And to know that someone did this for me — well, that makes it even more special."
'One Last Christmas'
There was nothing more doctors could do for 2-year-old Dax Locke. So his devastated parents brought him back to their central Illinois home, in October last year.
All they could hope for, at that point, was to have one last Christmas with their son, who had a rare form of leukemia.
Julie Locke remembers hating to leave the security of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, where Dax had undergone two unsuccessful bone marrow transplants. She hadn't heard much from anyone from home in a few days.
"Are they forgetting about Dax?" she wondered.
Then she and husband Austin drove into their neighborhood in Washington, Ill., a small town outside Peoria. It wasn't even Halloween, and yet the houses were covered in red, green and white holiday lights and decorations — all of it for Dax.
The Lockes broke down and cried as they looked at all the lights, some spelling out Dax's name.
When their rosy-cheeked, towheaded little boy awoke, even as sick as he was, he grinned with delight.
Neighbor Trish Hurtgen had no idea that the decorations would spread through town the way they did, even going up in other parts of the country and on overseas military bases.
She had simply made a flyer and gone door to door with her family, asking nearby neighbors to decorate for Dax.
"I can't say that we ever expected it to be what it turned out to be. But that's often how life is. Sometimes people respond in ways you'd never imagine."
Dax did live to see that last Christmas. He died Dec. 30, 2009, in a hospital room near his home that nurses also decorated with strings of multicolored lights.
His story and the community's response inspired Matthew West, a Nashville-based singer, to write a newly released song titled "One Last Christmas." It's one of many ways people are supporting a fund the Lockes started in hopes of raising $1.6 million, enough money to run the St. Jude hospital for one day. So far, the Lockes have raised about $250,000.
This will not be an easy Christmas for them. There is no tree in their home, only stacks of presents that Julie Locke has purchased and wrapped for children from disadvantaged homes.
"Before all of this, I was no gem about helping others," the 26-year-old mom concedes. "I've definitely changed, definitely grown up."
She can't begin to repay the kindness that people have showed them — the hot meals, the stacks of packages left on their doorstep. Cookies and cards, many of them from people they don't even know, continue to arrive even now.
This year, a few holiday lights also started appearing early at houses around their home. There weren't nearly as many as last year, but still enough to know that Dax is not forgotten. One neighbor wrapped lights around the swing set the boy loved so much.
The Lockes find comfort in these silent expressions of support for their family, which now includes a new baby, Madeline.
One day, she will hear the story of her big brother — the boy who lit up a neighborhood.
"One Last Christmas" song and video: http://bit.ly/gwWuVF
Dax Locke site: http://stj.convio.net/goto/Dax.Locke
"Harlem, Light It Up" video: http://bit.ly/eoNE6d
Decorated Family: http://www.christmasdecor.net/decorated-family
Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org