Garishly over- Santa Claus-ed yards, lit up like twinkling Klieg lights, invariably raise the question: What kind of Christmas nut inhabits that house?
For that matter, what does any holiday lawn decor -- be it simple, extravagant or light-free -- say about the mind of the decorator who dwells inside?
Psychologists considering such lofty questions toss about terms like "naturalistic expressions of social quality" and "behavioral residue." But at its core, any scientific examination of why we dangle flickering diodes from our eves this time of year gets down to basic human nature.
"We're sort of itching to be in touch and communicate with people," said Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You."
"I think it's a very basic tendency to know others and to need to be known by others. We jump on these sanctioned opportunities to do that."
Charles Jannetto jumped in with both feet about 12 years ago when he and his wife bought their first house on Home Avenue in Berwyn, Ill. Shortly after Thanksgiving, Jannetto saw his neighbor carrying boxes of Christmas decorations to the front yard.
"She kept brining more and more and more," said Jannetto, his face lit by the rosy glow of light-up candy canes. "So I went and got some, and it just started to grow."
Now elaborate decorations spread out across his and his neighbor's lawns. There are no fewer than 10 Santas, several elves, blinking stars, an animated snowman doffing his hat, a herd of reindeer, a small but functioning Ferris wheel and Mrs. Claus holding an American flag.
Jannetto has a permanent, underground power line running to his front yard to dispense the necessary electricity. He has, without question, fulfilled the desire to be known.
"Everybody comes by. I look out my window, and I see the cars slowing down to look," he said, grinning like a 59-year-old wannabe elf. "It makes me feel great that everybody loves it."
David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Binghamton University in New York, has actually studied the way people decorate their homes at Christmas and how the density of decorating reflects community strength. He had students survey 3,600 houses on randomly assigned streets, generating a holiday-decoration map that showed which Binghamton neighborhoods had the most social capital.
The results, to the dismay of Scrooges everywhere, were indisputable.
"It turns out," Wilson said, "that this urge to decorate your house is an expression of neighborliness. Some of the best neighborhoods literally glow more brightly."
While some holiday decorations reveal clues about the homeowner _ whimsical, devout, highly extroverted _ others hold meaning only the decorator can know. Gosling calls these "feeling regulators," akin to photos of loved ones kept on a desk at work or mementos from a meaningful time in life.
By that definition, the lively Christmas arrangement on the Oak Park, Ill., lawn of Gerald Cholewa and Ronald Klimek is one big, flickering feeling regulator. The highlights of the display are an old wooden sled Cholewa's father made and a wood-cutout nativity scene crafted by Cholewa's brother.
Growing up on the Northwest Side of Chicago, his family's house was always a festival of lights and hand-made wooden Santas and snowmen. His father created so many decorations he had to build a storage shed in the backyard to hold them all.
After Cholewa's father died, his brother took the role of decorator-in-chief. Then, two years ago, his brother passed away.
"We never thought we'd be the kind of people to have wood cutouts on our lawn," Cholewa said. "But it's like we're carrying on the tradition. In many ways this is a memorial to my brother."
Of course not all who gaze on Christmas displays take time to consider the potential for deeper meaning. And there are some yards that defy analysis, ones that look as though a truck carrying 30 years worth of Christmas detritus jackknifed nearby, sending its contents scattering across the lawn.
These are the displays that make organizational experts like Peter Walsh want to toss his eggnog. Author of "It's All Too Much" and a regular guest on the " Oprah Winfrey" show, Walsh posits that a cluttered holiday yard may reflect a cluttered mind.
"Is the way you decorate your yard a reflection of how you see the spirit of the holiday season?" Walsh asked. "Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But each of us has to answer that question."
So step outside, Christmas decorators, and take a long, hard look at each item, each penguin, Grinch and light-up snowflake in your yard.
Then ask yourself: Does this item move me closer to creating the mood, the feeling, the ambience I'm looking for in my life?
"If it does," Walsh said, "keep it."
And if it doesn't?
"Why the hell do you have it in your life?"Copyright © 2015, CT Now