The stockings were hung, the ornaments ready, three creches were opened, the elves barely steady.

As seasoned Christmas tree decorators know, you have to do the lights first. Find ’em, unwind ’em, check the plugs, replace the non-twinklers. By now we must have four generations of sizes, replacements, and fire hazards.

Among the items my wife retrieved before the sale of her mother’s house two years ago were the Christmas snowball lights: colorful two-inch glass balls covered with “ice,” a single memory-laden strand from her Midwestern girlhood. Amidst the tangle of cords and wires, we found her lights again. Plugged in, though, most of the snowballs hadn’t made it to 2004. A full strand of lights is an interesting accent; only two lights is odd.

When is the best time to buy that extra special set of Christmas lights?

Well, it’s not in the ramp-up to December 25th! We tried the mom and pop shops, we tried the Big Boxes. Then we hit Ebay.

There they were, “vintage Christmas lights from 1959,” and we wanted them. But so did folks from Kansas, New York, and Oklahoma; Christmas lights, needed before the 25th, are a seller’s market. The dishes and chores could waitwe were on a nostalgia-driven mission.

“What are you doing?” the kids asked with skeptical curiosity as the late-night auctions started. Like, shouldn’t we be wrapping presents or cooking dinner or paying bills, or whatever?

The bidding was a welcomed holiday diversion. Our focus shrank to a handful of computer screen pixels and the promise of a complete set of outdated Christmas lights; We cheered, laughed, cringed, cajoled each other. Aware of how much less the same lights sold for in November, we rolled our eyes. Nothing like a little friendly competition to spice up the season’s greetings drama. We watched the bidding rise, making hollow promises about our maximums.

The fever lasted past Jon Stewart, but we scored on a boxfull from Virginia. The next morning, someone from Pennsylvania e-mailed, saying we were the high bid on their box, too.

We had an early Christmas when the first box arrived three days later. With great care the bright new snowballs were added to the tree, an unexpected breath of that potent holiday spirit that’s sometimes elusive in the chaos of lists, sales and shipping deadlines.

You go with the magic, and lights are magical; coming down the stairs in the morning, taking last peeks at bedtime.

Now we’re ready for the season.