Lots of affluent neighborhoods across the country have elaborate Christmas light displays. Greensboro has a simple, more elegant and yet equally majestic play on the idea: lighted Christmas balls.
I honestly don’t know how they’re constructed, but they’re essentially skeletal spheres the size of kickballs that are wrapped in lights and suspended from old-growth oak trees. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them spread throughout the gracious neighborhoods that flank the westward conduits of Friendly Avenue and Market Street. Sunset Hills is the stronghold, with Lake Daniel putting in a respectable showing and enclaves of Lindley Park cropping up here and there. The proliferation of Christmas balls, which have steadily grown over the years, is like a benevolent virus of holiday cheer or the best possible case of keeping up with the Jones.
The Christmas balls are a rite of passage for transplants like me, and probably also for natives like my wife. They certainly helped form my first impressions of Greensboro when I arrived just after Thanksgiving 2004. Having accepted a new job starting at the beginning of December, I worked my connections from the Durham anarchist scene to finagle an offer for temporary housing with a collection of activists, musicians, artists and cultural provocateurs living in a two-story four-square in Westerwood. Liz Seymour, who was like the den mother of the Greensboro anarchist scene at the time, invited me to a concert at Guilford College. After the concert, we loaded into Liz’s minivan and headed back on Friendly Avenue, a journey that struck me at the time as an interminable stretch of suburbia. It was probably 11 p.m., and someone in the crowded minivan suggested we look at the Christmas balls.
I can clearly remember the feeling of awe that came over me. I was a 29-year-old adult at the time, and it was the closest I’ve likely come to reclaiming the sense of childhood wonder at discovering my stocking and a pile of presents under the tree on Christmas morning. The sheer number of those orbs floating in the tree branches while illuminating the landscape seemed to make time stand still for a moment.
A couple years later my mom came to visit for Christmas. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I took her to the Garage in Winston-Salem to see a folk concert. When we were driving home we got the notion to take the Guilford College Road exit so we could drive home through the neighborhoods. The Christmas balls are the essential Greensboro experience, I thought. My mom has to see them.
The same instinct took hold after our daughter was born. In 2014, when she was just over a year old, my wife and I made plans for a Friday evening to drive to Sunset Hills. We parked the car and walked around. I think at the time our girl was mainly interested in sleeping, but her parents still recognized the magic.
She’ll get it someday.