It might be a strange first post for the Jewish urbanist, but if you live in a city, or to be honest, even a town or the suburbs, you can not escape the xmas lights. Walking down Bond Street today in London, I was again struck by how strange I find the typical British holiday displays. To be fair, they have improved in the eight years I’ve lived in the UK, but they are still miles behind the States and would be sure to disappoint any American visitor hoping for magical sparkles.
In fact, I’ll never forget when my American friend Samantha, full of enthusiasm and having only been living in the UK for a couple of months, called me up to say that whatever we did that weekend, we just HAD to go look at the xmas lights at Oxford Circus. “Really?” I said to her, “Because I think you’re going to be disappointed.”. But she told me that her colleague had enthused about it, and she really wanted to go see them. So I reiterated my warning and off we went.
The xmas lights in question are the photo above. I think they may have changed color. But then, maybe they didn’t. Needless to say, she wasn’t impressed.
But times have changed somewhat. The lights are getting better and the window displays are improving. It’s still not Herald’s Square, but it’s getting bigger. And I think it does make an impact on the winter outdoor experience. It’s dark, it’s cold, and in the UK it’s probably wet. These are not conditions that make you want to take to the streets and linger. But xmas lights give you a reason to shuffle along and just look around. They can make you smile and certainly entertain. They add brightness to what would otherwise be a fairly depressing time of year (there’s a reason people cry on buses in Helsinki this time of year). So do xmas lights improve the urban experience?
Clearly on the one hand I’m saying they do. But the other part of me is not so thrilled with the energy waste and the ubiquitous nature of following the herd. What was wrong with UK xmas lights that they weren’t as big and as bright and fantastic as American ones? Are xmas lights just an homage to the consumerist religion of shopping? Do xmas lights have anything to do with xmas at all? Are xmas lights a symbol of rampant globalization? Do questions like this just make me a grinch?
Feel free to share your thoughts below.