Late last month, in an Arizona suburb, someone jumped out of a car and stabbed Frosty the Snowman to death. Frosty was an inflatable. He exploded after a single lunge, but then the vandal continued to stab and stab and stab Frosty, seven more times. Until the snowman was good and flat.
Closer to home, a few weeks ago, the Chicago Department of Transportation asked a West Town pub to remove its inflatable holiday decorations from the sidewalk out front, citing the safety of vehicles and passersby; the pub owner said Ald. Daniel La Spata (who reported the offending balloons) was retaliating against him because he hosted fundraising events for opponents of La Spata (who denied this). Still, I like to think the alderman called CDOT because the city doesn’t have any Christmas decoration police.
As holiday inflatables proliferate, that seems shortsighted.
The ugly, wobbling evidence is everywhere.
Recently, a bear attacked a Rudolph inflatable in front of a Nevada home. I don’t know the circumstances, but I like this bear. Also, in a Houston suburb, someone stole a bundle of holiday inflatables in the dead of night. The same thing happened in Palm Beach.
I don’t condone vandalism, theft, violence or playing tattletale on your neighbors; with the most transgressive acts against holiday inflatables, the intention was likely a mean prank. But I do find myself siding with House Beautiful magazine, which has called the popularity of inflatable Christmas decorations on front lawns no less than an “epidemic.”
Just step outside your home right now.
O, Holy Night, indeed. Fall on your knees!
By day, the holiday inflatables in many Chicago-area neighborhoods lay flaccid on dead grass, like colorful garbage that blew in while you were at work. By night, they bob and quiver and steal your attention with every light breeze, turning even the most tasteful cul-de-sac into a car dealership. When they’re not sailing into the street, they’ve fallen and they can’t get up. And whereas Christmas displays once twinkled and charmed, the motors and fans on holiday inflatables have eliminated silent nights. They exude only sadness. They suggest holiday decorating is an electrical outlet, a lawn stake and a makeshift hair dryer. At the risk of insulting you: If you own an inflatable, I assume you hate Christmas.
Either that or, conversely, you like the holidays so much that you are one of those people who insist “But the kids like them!” and have relinquished all decorating responsibilities to their 4-year-olds.
How else to decipher the most inexplicable Christmas trend of recent years: Front lawns that resemble crowded inflatable-decoration showcases — or better yet, a 4-year-old’s bedroom. Amazon lists 3,000 different holiday inflatables for sale and some of you have bought every one and decided to install them on the same meager patch of grass, creating a nightclub of pop culture intellectual properties with scant relation to the holiday. Inflatable Christmas Chevy Chase — OK, I get it, I just don’t like it.
But inflatable Mandalorians? Inflatable X-wing fighters, aliens, “Frozen” princesses? Inflatable Godzillas, roosters, llamas, snails, unicorns, PAW Patrol dogs? Boxed wine company Franzia recently unveiled a limited-edition inflatable box of wine. Throw a Santa hat or a wreath around these things and voila, instant holiday decoration. The other day I saw what might be the peak of bad holiday decor, a veritable convergence of generations of questionable taste: Inflatable Santa playing cards with inflatable reindeer.
Let’s put decor back in holiday decorations!
It won’t be easy.
What with inflatable gingerbread men and nutcrackers sharing the lawn with inflatable Santa in his underwear, inflatable Santa on a Jet Ski, inflatable Santa living in a trailer, inflatable Santa in combat fatigues, inflatable Santa on the toilet, inflatable Santa on a surfboard, inflatable Santa on an exercise bike. A house down the street has an inflatable Santa throwing knifelike fish at an inflatable Rudolph strapped to a magician’s wheel, which spins all day and night. Yes, these examples are real. And yes, Chicago, you can purchase an inflatable Jesus. Along with several variations of inflatable Nativity scenes, its Baby Jesuses often so off-putting, rounded and pill-shaped as to be blasphemous. On the other hand, it is nice to know that tacky, lazy decorations are not only for Christmas — there are also giant inflatable menorahs and inflatable dreidels (with or without polar bears wearing sunglasses).
Having an artificial Christmas, of course, is no crime.
Most of us have. It can be charming. The busy collectors’ market for vintage Christmas blow molds — those hollow plastic statues introduced after World War II, made by scores of companies, including Beco and Noma Lites in Chicago — is proof, and maybe a reaction to the distaste some show for Christmas inflatables. Even Home Depot and Target now sell blow molds alongside inflatables. Once plugged in, a blow mold is magical, casting a muted, evocative glow that plays like fabled memories of Christmas.
Then again, the blow mold is also a formerly cheesy predecessor to the inflatable. Standards change. Artificiality is forever. Greenery — boughs, holly, boughs of holly — was the first Christmas decoration. But the first artificial trees were not far behind, introduced initially as piles of wood, cobbled together by families that couldn’t afford a freshly chopped spruce. Strings of colored electric lights arrived in the late 1800s, and soon private Christmas trees became neighborhood window displays. About the same time, department stores started selling cheap, mass-produced versions of European ornaments. As early as the 1920s, General Electric was urging neighborhoods to hold Christmas display contests, asking you to show off a little and drag those living room lights out onto the front lawn. The Great Depression slowed the popularity of front yard displays. But after World War II, they grew alongside the suburbs.
Movies like “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and “Deck the Halls” had fun with the inevitable decoration arms races between houses, and in neighborhoods around Chicago like Sauganash and Logan Square, well-coordinated holiday displays among neighbors suggested a sense of community.
But decades later, what does a 26-foot-tall inflatable Santa (costing $1,300), towering over two-story homes and trees and yards, temporarily presiding over its neighbors like a leering god, suggest?
Like many things worth hating, the holiday inflatable was born in the Lone Star State. Specifically, Gemmy Industries, which, about 20 years ago, facing a slowdown of sales of its blockbuster animatronic Big Mouth Billy Bass novelty plaques, took a cue from retailers and car dealerships that used inflatable gorillas and dinosaurs to attract customers. Selling marketing ploys repackaged as holiday memories might sound like the pinnacle of a holiday forever getting too commercial. But that’s the idea. According to public radio’s Marketplace, Gemmy now claims at least 90% of the inflatable business.
So, yes, it is the pinnacle of a holiday never as good as it was when you were a kid.
Or rather, it is the pinnacle right now.
As holiday inflatables spill onto lawns during Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day, the inflatable decoration is looking tired, overexposed and way too ubiquitous to be charming anymore. That’s why your neighbors hate your inflatables and complain about you behind your back. Maybe you don’t care. You should: Christmas lights were once a beacon in a dark Midwestern night, a reminder of brighter days ahead, a promise of warmth on these, the shortest days of the year.
And now they’re a reminder that “The Mandalorian” Season 3 begins March 1.