As a successor to my post on a bumper sticker bedecked guardrail in Wilmington, I offer a second example of what I must at least partly attribute to meme culture, for which the World Wide Web exerted little to no influence. This second example of memetic behavior that is anti-digital is probably a bit more subtle and cryptic, and it may be harder to pontificate exactly how it happened. But it reveals a site-specific example where people affirm a certain aesthetic by imitating it. The highest form of flattery.
Before delving into this second case study—with photographic evidence—I first want to recollect the anecdote that prompted me to devote the energy on this two-part series. When I first saw those bumper stickers at the Harvey Road exit ramp in Wilmington, they immediately reminded me of a single-day lecture I attended many years earlier, from an Irish-born doctoral student exploring memetic culture, without ever once uttering any word with two Ms separated only by an E. He recalled how, in his mid-sized town of tidy brick rowhomes, one of his neighbors encountered damage to his front door, for one reason or another (I can’t remember exactly what happened). Upon repairing the door, this neighbor embellished it with a bright red coat of paint. The decision proved controversial in the town; after all, each row home in a single block was largely identical, aside from individual owners adding slight accents to window trim, a wreath, or some other distinguishing embellishment. But never a door, and never bright paint. Everyone’s doors retained their natural wooden state, so crimson proved quite the breach of orthodoxy. At first, community and pub gatherings showed overwhelming disapproval for the rebellious neighbor. Then, after a few more weeks, another neighbor painted her door a cheerful kelly green. Then another, navy blue. Then purple. Then orange. In less than a year, over half the doors on the block were like the swatches to an artist’s palette.
The Irish lecturer’s town—or at least a certain section of it—became known as one with colorful doors. Tourists even came to witness it. One person had initiated the defiant act and another indicated tacit approval through imitation of the same gesture with a customized modification: it’s still bright paint and it’s still the door, but it’s a different color. (On that guardrail in Wilmington, it was always a bumper sticker, albeit different stickers every time.) The grad student chronicled this shift in door colors through photos. I have no doubts I’m misremembering huge portions of the story. In fact, I might be unintentionally appropriating huge portions from a vaguely similar story about the doors of Dublin, featuring the celebrated writer George Moore. I’d even venture that the Irish lecturer’s story might be apocryphal and that he was concocting a personalized version of what really was the celebrated doors of Dublin…except that he had photos of the doors, of the homes, and everything he showed us looked more like a town than a city the scale of Dublin. Regardless of where in Ireland they like to paint their doors—whether Dublin, this smaller town, or all throughout Ireland—the meme’s essence survives.
Let’s traverse the Atlantic and then venture about 115 miles southwest of Wilmington to the Del Ray neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia, a comfy old streetcar oriented community that I’ve featured in the past. Typical of most communities across the country, the residents of Del Ray bring out the seasonal spirit in December, festooning their homes with LEDs to keep things cheery during the shortest days of the year. But one block stands out in particular:
At first blush, it doesn’t look that extreme. I took these photos in the middle of January—a point when most people have started to dismantle their Christmas decorations. But this block in particular was still going full swing; more than half of the homes had some form of illumination.
What distinguished this block, however, was the type of illumination. Not all of it came in the form of strands of lights, or those three-dimensional figures (plastic or inflatable) that some people prefer. No, what this block in Del Ray offered were large plywood signs, painted and illuminated.
I counted at least a dozen of them, all perched in the front yards across an expanse of homes that stretched no more than two blocks. The subject matter varied greatly. Here’s a household who clearly enjoyed the cultural references to the How the Grinch Stole Christmas!:
Yes, it’s a reference to the original animated special from the 1960s—the one the helped propel the Grinch character as the ultimate American (and 20th century) counterpart to the Dickensian Ebenezer Scrooge. And yes, those cryptic syllables are what all the Whos of Whoville sing as they join hands and encircle their denuded Christmas tree. The recreation of Max, the Grinch’s loyal dog, is more than adequate. A home just a few doors down offers a more realistic canine depiction:
And one other home along this street decided to perch its illuminated sign on the sloped roof.
The neighborhood secularist also felt perfectly comfortable joining the celebration.
This concentration of illuminated panels isn’t coincidental, obviously. They’re all nearly identical in size. It turns out it’s a seasonal tradition that a long-time Del Ray resident exported from her childhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Starting in the mid-1960s, residents decided to take 4 x 6’ plywood sheets and decorate them with seasonally appropriate vignettes, much like the front of a Christmas card, lending the area to the name Christmas Card Lane. A few residents drew their inspiration from a similar display in the smaller neighboring community of Zeeland; they brought it to Kalamazoo and expanded the number of featured homes. The neighbors on this street put the plywood displays in their front yards at the same time in early December, creating an incentive for a unified effort through a cookie party which eventually convinced more than 40 homeowners to participate. Word caught on and the Christmas Card Lane became a tourist attraction that has survived to the present. Though only one of the original homeowners remain, when Lauderdale Drive neighbors sell their homes, they leave the plywood sheets with the new homeowner; it’s essentially part of the deed. Thus, Christmas Card Lane has survived a half century.
Del Ray graphic artist Rebecca VanZoeren hoped to export the Christmas Tree Lane of her childhood in a part of the country with considerably more “churn” in the residential real estate market than Kalamazoo. It was a tough initiative, but through at least a block or so each December, Luray Avenue becomes its own Christmas Card Lane. The lots in Delray are smaller than Lauderdale Avenue in Kalamazoo, so although the stretch of road isn’t as extensive, it may still involve a similar number of homes. Her efforts obviously left a strong enough impression on her neighbors that Luray Avenue was still much more noticeably illuminated than other streets in the large neighborhood.
I’ll concede that, after researching this initiative, it’s less organic than I initially expected. Therefore, it’s less tied to the psychology of memetic culture that allows all varieties of aesthetic and semiotic gestures to replicate and proliferate. With Ms. VanZoeren, the Christmas Card Lane of Del Ray has a clear brainchild, and even the efforts in Kalamazoo and Zeeland required some deliberation. Besides, it’s temporary and seasonal, so it requires some degree of organization to get people to haul those wooden sheets onto Christmas Card Lane each year. But, in any of these examples, it’s highly unlikely that every single person needed the friendly persuasion of a chief organizer to impel them to decorate their front yard with a huge plywood sign. Once the first few Christmas cards took root and asserted themselves as an annual routine, other people almost certainly jumped on board. And in that regard, it’s not necessarily different from site-specific seasonal decorating initiatives that take place all across the country, like this one:
Less than a mile away from Del Ray, the Old Town neighborhood of Alexandria offers a block that decorates with a similar élan, a month and a half earlier for Halloween. It too may come from a top-down directive, but at a certain point people clearly join the fun without any cajoling from the neighborhood cheerleader. They disseminate the meme entirely on their own volition, not entirely unlike those painted doors in Dublin. And it’s just as analog as those bumper stickers in Wilmington; it grows and flourishes without a second of time spent on the Internet. In 2022, how many fads can make such a claim?!