In Baltimore, where you are what you decorate with, clear lights have seized the upper hand in public displays of affection for the holidays. But don't blink.

FLASH POINT

December 18, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Clear, clear, clear, tiny, twinkly and magical and pristine. Clear lights draped delicately in dogwood branches, clear, tapered lights in the window. Clear lights intertwined with pine rope in elegant loopy garlands that climax in big, beautiful wreathes, lighted, of course, with clear bulbs. And here and there, an electrified reindeer, a trophy shot through with clear lights, grazing, prancing or standing in reflective repose.

That's Rodgers Forge at Christmastime. You might even think it's written into the neighborhood covenant: Thou must decorate your home with clear lights, or be banished from this yuppie row-home community for eternity.

Last year, John Hannaway, an otherwise reputable Rodgers Forge denizen, got fed up with all this twinkly Snow Queen stuff. He wrapped his pine rope in multicolored blinking lights. "I don't like all the white," says the attorney.

His neighbors might beg to disagree.

Throughout Baltimore and its environs this time of year, the Christmas-light debate rages:

Clear?

Multicolored?

Monochromatic?

Primary or pastels?

And computer chips offer another sleigh-full of choices: Twinkling?

Fading?

Chasing patterns?

Singing?

Think it through: Where you stand on Christmas lights is the key to your status in life, who your friends will be, cotton or poly, Rolling Rock or micro. Whether you prefer clear to multicolored sheds a light on your very material soul. Unless, of course, you are so hopelessly confused that you use both to garnish your home and landscape.

From Hampden to Roland Park, from Owings Mills to Westminster, it's fun to keep score in the friendly rivalry. Predictions are useless. If you think you'll find only white lights in reserved Homeland and only multicolored lights in more lively Highlandtown, think again. For when it comes to Christmas lights, there are no rules.

In a community of old farmhouses, traditionally decked in multicolored lights, younger settlers may rehab, then throw a shower of clear lights over the door. Or a community of freshly minted townhouses may show a clear-lighted face to the world, but shroud their back decks in bright colors -- for the kids' sake.

In the city, Mercy Hospital has created a multicolored fantasy land in the park across the street. Nearby, however, the Inner Harbor and the Washington Monument twinkle tastefully in white. At Johns Hopkins University, a huge Santa and sleigh presideover Charles Village; all is clear, all is bright. This year's National Christmas Tree is decked in patriotic red, white and blue lights, but the rest of D.C. is a thousand points of clear light.

Since they appeared 40 years ago, clear lights have revolutionized Christmas. They were pioneered in part by the Baltimore-based Becker Group, a display company that transforms malls and atriums around the world into winter wonderlands, with extravagant curtains of clear lights.

Clear lights used on bud trees have a "very lacy, and effective look," says Gordon Becker, president of the company. "Today, in commercial decor, it's the standard."

In the Hammacher Schlemmer holiday catalog, clear-light Christmas decorations appeal to a wealthy clientele. A 100-light fiber-optic wreath costs $129.95. An animated angel light sculpture with fluttering wings goes for $899.95. And those three lighted reindeer sculptures sell for $599.99 a set. (Some decorations are available in multicolored lights, but that's in the fine print; they aren't pictured in the lush catalog.)

For the past four years, outdoor clear lights have outsold multicolored lights, says Michael Sugar, general manager of NOMA Christmas, a $70 million manufacturer of Christmas lights based in Illinois.

"The figures will tell you clear lights have increased in popularity dramatically over the past couple years," Sugar says. "It's probably mostly due to cities which are decorating in clear lights and people emulate what's going on."

Preferences run in cycles, and Sugar predicts that multicolored lighting will make a comeback, as will larger bulbs.

Color preferences are determined by geographic region, Sugar says. "In the more traditional Midwest, people use more multicolored lights. On the two coasts and in Florida, people tend to use white bulbs."

Locally, clear lights appear to have the edge. They're outselling multicolored lights about five boxes to one, says an employee at Stebbins Anderson, the tony Towson hardware store. Home Depots in Dundalk and Catonsville aren't even selling multicolored lights. The clear lights haven't moved in Dundalk, but are nearly sold out at the Catonsville outlet.

At Frank's Nursery & Crafts in Towson, no clear lights remain. Even Frank's central warehouse in Harrisburg, Pa., is clear out of clear lights, store manager John Schmidt says. If you want amber, teal or purple, help yourself, he says.

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