You see one in every neighborhood -- a house and yard with so many Christmas lights that people on Mars complain about the glare. So when is a Christmas light display merely exuberant and when does it devolve into tacky?

I ask this question as someone who grew up with tacky. We had a big crabapple tree in the front yard that we would decorate every Christmas with big, gaudy, bright green C-9 lights. I can state with certainty that we had the only green crabapple tree in the neighborhood. But when you're a kid, you accept everything and think anything looks good. People would drive by, gaze at the Big Green Monster, and say, "Oooooh -- look at that." I naturally interpreted their reaction to mean, "I believe that tree belongs in the Guggenheim."

Our holiday light display continued to grow more sophisticated every year. My father bought this electric color wheel that would slowly revolve in front of a spotlight aimed at the front of our house. Our house would change from blue to yellow to green to red. It's lucky we lived in Baltimore and not Amsterdam or the local working girls would have been very confused.

The Fire Down Below

One of the tackiest light displays I've ever seen occurred in a cave, believe it or not. My brother had flown down to visit us in Birmingham and made the mistake of staying for three days. Well, Birmingham has only enough sights to see to occupy a family for a max of two days -- we have Vulcan, the huge cast-iron statue; the Birmingham Museum of Art, which is quite good; the McWane Science Center, another decent diversion; two good botanical gardens, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens in Mountain Brook and Aldridge Botanical Gardens in Hoover; a host of malls (like which town doesn't have one?); and that's it. So we had to look elsewhere.

About 40 minutes from my house is a well-known cave. It's well-known because it's name is on several billboards (you know you've made it when your name is on a billboard). I always thought it was a state-owned cave, but it turns out a family runs it. A family that apparently thinks the Louvre is a store that sells blinds and shutters.

Anyway, my brother loves caving, so we took him there and paid 12 bucks each for the tour. To say the cave was a disappointment was like saying Rosie O'Donnell is somewhat disagreeable. Most of the stalactites and stalagmites -- beautiful gypsum formations descending from the ceiling and rising from the floor that took many centuries to form -- had been broken off. The family must have needed doorstops.

Near the end of the tour, the family gathers all of the visitors together in the middle of the cave, turns off the lights so it's blacker than night, and announces they're treating us to the Christmas Story. One of them grabs a mike and starts narrating the epic tale, while another works the "light show." Thinking computer-controlled laser light show here? Nope. One guy simply flipped a switch on and off over and over again during key passages to reveal the finest collection of illuminated reindeer, spiral Christmas trees, plastic stars, and neon angels Wal-Mart and the Dollar Store could provide.

The show was --- hmmmm --- less than exhilarating. Halfway through, my boy Brian, who was three at the time, turned to me and said, "Dad, this is really lame."

Is Your Display Tacky?

Let me begin by saying there's a difference between tacky and gaudy. Gaudy is over-the-top garish, but its purveyors know it and have a plan. Tacky is over-the-top-middle-and-bottom and its creators haven't a clue.

Either is OK, of course. The holidays are about fun and family, so whatever makes you smile is alright by the Grump. Having said that, there are two kinds of Christmas illuminations he and the Martians wish would disappear from the face of the Earth.

1. Icicle Christmas lights -- I am so over these! They were cool for the first 5 minutes, but then every house on every street decided to do them and neighborhoods all over the country started looking like a Thomas Kinkade painting. White icicle lights are bad enough, but some people do blue! What is the message here? That your paternal grandfather was Frosty?

2. Inflatable lighted Santas and snowmen -- These look so jolly and nice in the morning when they're deflated and lying on the ground like gigantic trash bags.

Rudolph the Pink Flamingo

Dasher and Dancer have nothing on pink flamingos when it come to generating holiday cheer. Mine have lights inside and if you think they're tacky, I'll have you know I bought them at a very prestigious home furnishings store. I display them on my front porch every year, especially when it's partying time. I tell my neighbors, "When the flamingos are lit, so are we."

Merry Christmas to all and a Happy New Year -- which is kind of a given, since 2009 couldn't possibly be worse.