Today my Pentecostal neighbor across the street is installing his inflatable Christmas characters, heralding what I like to think of as the Advent of Advent.

I'm sure you've seen these inflatables at discount outlets--eight-foot Grinches, Santy Clauses, Rudolphs, Frostys, angels (with and without trumpets), Holy Families, giant red candles. Last year Across the Street put up 15 inflatables that bobbed and hissed wheezily between All Saints and Valentine's Day.

The Michigan winters have not been kind to the inflatables. Santy Clause's suit is more pink than red, and Rudolph's light goes on and off intermittently. The Grinch's nylon acetate "skin" has grown so thin he is nearly translucent. And many of the inflatables sport duct-tape patches, some shiny and new, and some old, dull and curling.

If passers-by stop to look at the display for any length of time (say, five seconds), Across the Street's rottweiler throws himself against the big picture window, barking and slavering like Cujo.

The village is chary about enforcing blight laws, but I'm pretty sure we could get a cop out here if we complained. However, nobody ever has called the authorities because nothing has pulled our neighborhood closer together at holiday time more than our common hatred of Across the Street's Christmas display.

Once the inflatables are up, you have a ready-made pool of lively conversation topics around the mailbox, in the coffee shop and at the grocery store: Whose view of the display is the best (or worst)? Which inflatable do you hate most? How and when could someone deflate them without detection (pellet guns, Bic lighters, knives and firecrackers have all figured into these scenarios)? How could anyone in his right mind think a mess like that would be attractive? Has the Rottweiler actually bitten anyone? Anybody want to place bets on when the display will come down, which has never been before Feb. 1?

Occasionally, Across the Street himself will come come out in his plaid flannel shorts, flip-flops with socks and parka. He'll honk and wave proudly from amidst his wheezing, inflated friends as he and Cujo roar off in his Jeep with the "I love cats; they taste like chicken" bumper sticker.

And, sometimes, when we offer a limp return wave, we realize that Across the Street sees something entirely different than we do. He sees a crowd of friendly giants growing older and rattier (as are we all), with illuminated faces shining through the long dark nights, waiting bravely, joyfully, faithfully despite wind, snow and the weakness that flesh (and nylon acetate) is heir to, to welcome the coming of Our Lord, who told us to love our neighbors, even the poor in taste.

Happy Advent of Advent.

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