Henry Ford telling his employees that a customer can have any colour of Model T Ford “as long as it’s black” is a well-known anecdote even though it’s unlikely he ever said it.
Regardless of whether or not he did, the sentiment is one we ignore at our cost. We’ve been lulled into the belief that choice equals freedom and that such freedom is desirable but the reality is often different.
Take, for example, Christmas tree lights.
Who came up with the idea of having lights with several different settings, ranging from the gaslighting uncertainty of appearing static before they suddenly fade like a child’s balloon the day after a party, to the psychopathic mayhem of a blink so rapid you feel you’re at a nineties rave without the mind-altering pharmaceuticals?
Surely most right-minded people just want to set their Christmas tree lights to “on”. Isn’t that enough?
I can’t remember whether I first watched Barry Schwartz’s compelling TED talk on the paradox of choice before or after a Sky TV salesman stood on my doorstep and tried to convince me that having more channels for the same price was a desirable outcome, despite my telling him that I didn’t watch a fraction of the ones I already had.
If the unnecessary range of programmables for your Christmas lights is a blatantly unnecessary addition, no doubt supported wholeheartedly by the Sky TV sales team, the introduction of multiple different colours and shapes seems similarly pointless.
“Brilliant white”, “Ice blue”, “Multicoloured”, “Curtain” and “Snowflake”, it’s all too much at a time when our senses are already overloaded with choice and expectation.
As a child, there was a single string of coloured Christmas lights that we’d pull from the box in mid-December in preparation for the painstaking routine of tightening each tiny bulb only to forget where you’d got to when someone passed around the tub of sweets. Then came the jeopardy of plugging them in to see if they still lit up.
One year, the lights failed on Christmas Eve and my brother was inconsolable.
It should have been an early warning for a lifelong and sometimes risky fascination with electricals confirmed a few years later when left home alone save for an elderly relative while my mother went out to run some errands, she returned to find he had wired our Great aunt to the mains and was preparing to flick the switch.
Undeterred, he made a valiant attempt at burning the house down in the early 1970s by leaving a generator running in the cellar while he went upstairs for a bath. It burst into flames resulting in the arrival of three fire engines and the departure of my mother’s trust and sanity.
Anyway, the year the Christmas lights failed my brother made such a terrible fuss that he could only be placated by the strategic placement of a powerful torch positioned against the trunk of the tree and shining upwards through the branches providing an eery monotone illumination.
It wasn’t the best, but it was all that we had, and that is almost always enough.
If we’d had programmable lights in those days my brother would immediately have taken them apart to see how they worked and anyway, what sort of decades-lasting family story would that have provided?
It might feel counterintuitive but, reducing choice is often a much more relaxing option and a direct route to greater contentment.
What we decorate our houses with, eat, and gift are all intended to have a positive impact on our emotions, so maybe it’s worth asking ourselves what we want to feel and starting there. We might find that much of what we do to try and generate good feelings wasn’t necessary or helpful in the first place.
When I ask myself what I’d like to feel at this time of year I am reminded of a trip I took to Borough Market with my daughter one Christmas a few years ago.
In the little alleyway there used to be a blackboard on the wall and printed on it several times down the left-hand side were the words, “Before I die I want to” followed by a space for people to add their wishes in chalk.
Someone had written on the board,
Before I die I want to: “See my sister fall in love again”
A desire for contentment via connection with another human being fuelled by an irresistible hope.
Contentment, connection, and hope sound like a good combination at any time, and none of them rests on the existence of some particularly fancy lights that pulse annoyingly to the tune of “Jingle Bells”.
Returning home, my neighbours are putting lights up on the front of their house. They’ve gone for a traditional multicoloured one as befits their age.
Later, when it gets dark they switch them on to a programme of haphazard frantic blinking that I imagine to be the sort of cacophony that goes on in your skull when you knock yourself out wandering unknowingly through an especially low doorway.
I lay in bed, their garish symphony pushing through the gaps in my blinds and throbbing like a neon “strip club” sign from a low-budget movie.
Turning to face the other way, I close my eyes and hope for a power cut so that I can push a torch in amongst the low branches of the Christmas tree, stand in the gloom, and think wistfully about a simpler past.