Christmas Lights

What does a science fiction movie directed by Steven Spielburg have in common with the holiness of Christmas?


The holidays call up different associations for different people.

For me, one of those associations is flying saucers.

Every year from around Thanksgiving onward, as Christmas lights go up around my neighborhood, I can't look at those warm, blinking, friendly dots of color without thinking about the equally warm, blinking, and friendly lights that flickered and slid across the spaceships in Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

"Close Encounters" opened in November of 1977, just a week or so before Thanksgiving. I was 15 at the time, and along with a friend was present for its very first showing at a Washington, DC, theater just across the Potomac River from McLean, Virginia, where we both lived.


As it happened, it might have been wiser for my friend and me to have waited for a later showing. During the climax of the movie, when the spaceship had at last arrived and the glowing, elongated aliens were stepping out of it, the screen suddenly went a dazzling white and the house lights came up.

The film had broken.

For a moment the packed theater was completely quiet. Then the grumbling began. "I want my money back!" my friend next to me suddenly shouted, to general murmurs of agreement. Finally, the house lights went down again and the film cranked back up. Richard Dreyfuss stepped into the glowing bowels of the ship, the credits ran…and the following weekend my friend and I talked his father into driving us back into DC again, so that we could see the film straight through without interruption.

For the rest of the Christmas of '77, I couldn't get the movie's images out of my mind. That in itself wasn't unusual, as good movies always imprinted themselves strongly on my imagination. The strange thing was that what most often called the movie to my mind were holiday objects: objects I had seen each and every Christmas for my entire life, but which I suddenly found myself looking at in an entirely different way.

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Ptolemy Tompkins
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