Those twinkling Christmas bulbs which illuminate our cities and flood the streets with a faux feel-good factor are a staple of seasonal cityscape. Christmas, as we know, is really about consumption and one of the things we consume more voraciously at this time of year is electricity. If we were to associate those lights with consumption rather than with a warm fuzzy feeling then we’ve probably got it about right. Christmas lights have their roots deep in PR and marketing. And they go right back to the beginning, one of the greatest commercial showmen of them all, Thomas Edison.
During the Christmas season of 1880, Edison set up a huge light display at his factory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Situated so that it would be visible from the New York to Philadelphia passenger railroad, the dazzling display turned heads and became a sensation. It was a marketing ploy to sell more of his new light bulbs. Of course, trees were illuminated before electricity. Last year saw the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his demands to a church door; it might also have been the half-millennium of Christmas tree candles as the invention of lighting up a pine tree has been attributed (spuriously) to Luther himself as an imitation of the sparkling stars in the sky. The forest and the firmament in one. Luther was, as we know, a marketing genius.
It was, however, certainly Thomas Edison who introduced the first electrically-illuminated Christmas tree, at the home of his colleague, vice-president of the Edison Electric Company, Edward Johnson in 1882. Lit up by 80 coloured lights, the tree was, of course, mounted on a revolving electric stand.
In New York City in 1912 a group of wealthy citizens and philanthropists came together to erect a Christmas tree in Madison Square Garden. Festooned with 2,300 lights, this would be the world’s first public, electrically-illuminated tree and the precursor to the Rockefeller Center’s contemporary version which replaced it in 1932. London’s tree tradition in Trafalgar Square only began in 1947, the huge pine an annual gift from a grateful, now liberated Norwegian nation.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Christmas lights had quickly spread into department store window displays, above shopping streets, onto towering city Christmas trees and, eventually, began outlining the profiles of houses of entire suburban neighbourhoods, spreading from the commercial to become a symbol of domesticity and community. Christmas illuminations are a perennially bizarre mix of the crassly commercial, the kitschily sentimental and the enduring desire to create something communal. They embody the paradox of a device firmly in rooted commerce and completely universal and globalised being adopted as a means of celebrating community and a sense of place.
These moments of philanthropy and fellow feeling, originally intended to promote a sense of community in huge cities which had become alienating and atomised remain rare. The real meaning of Christmas lights still resides in consumption. Major metropolitan shopping streets light themselves up in an effort to attract more shoppers and to create a spectacle, something beyond the generic global chainstore windows. Increasingly indistinguishable cities have now imported German-style Christmas markets with their twinkly kiosks in another effort to create an illuminated cutesy cityscape yet succeed only in making everywhere more the same. There are massively illuminated streetscapes in China (where any excuse for lighting up cities is generously embraced), in Latin America (most notably the gorgeously garish spectacles of Medellin and Bogota).
Cities simultaneously attempt to brand themselves, to make themselves unique through their Christmas illuminations, via a medium which is utterly universal and familiar. This doesn’t mean it cannot still be enchanting; thousands of little lights really can create an atmosphere and define a place in the dark which might be otherwise utterly inconspicuous during the day. But the globalised nature of illuminations - and the fact that they are now virtually inevitably made in China, a country with no real sense of the particular Western iconography of Christmas, means that those places made special by lights begin to coalesce into something very similar. The recent realisation that strings of bulbs can transform an industrial car park or back alley streetscape into a night-time grotto has also stripped the specialness from the illuminated streetscape, which is now ubiquitous from fairy-lit eateries in Dubai to the post-industrial ruins of food-truck car parks on once-no-go city edges. So it is left to homeowners to define the real spirit of Christmas through massive over-illumination and seen-from-space excess. The suburbs tend to suffer from a similar sense of placelessness as the contemporary city centre, an urban ennui which can be temporarily relieved by an overdose of electric over-consumption. This is, of course, a kind of marketing in itself, a look-at-me showing off which illustrates the wealth, the size of the electricity bill and the effort put into this displacement activity by homeowners who compete with each other to create the most, literally, brilliant, light-show. That there is something self-aggrandising and distasteful about these lumieres-sans-son shows is illustrated by the charity boxes so often placed at these sites of illuminated pilgrimage. They attempt to justify the expense and the ego through deflecting the issue via charity, it is, all in a good cause.
But there is, in every way, something brilliant about those overdone suburban lightshows. I find them irresistible. They are the very American equivalent of the roadside architecture of diners and symbolic structures made to capture the eye from a car but they also have the capacity to create something special for the local, to make a place from the most modest of materials. The curious thing is that in outlining the generally generic architecture - the profiles of the roof and walls, the corners, the garages, the chimneys and the trees which surround them, Christmas lights celebrate the shape of normalcy, literally highlighting it. It is an annual opportunity to remake the everyday house as something special. That transference of Christmas from celebration to illumination of a standard house also strips out the remaining religion so that this becomes a universal celebration. Of course there are the reindeer and the Santas and the rest which make it clear that this is something marginally to do with Christmas but it is also, in many other ways, an admirable attempt at being different through expressing the genericism of suburbanity. The otherwise unspectacular Dyker Heights in Brooklyn, for instance, is able to remake itself for a month or so each year as a sheer spectacle, a bottom-up installation in which residents are allowed to escape into a dreamscape.
I was always a little intrigued by the contrast between Bedford Falls and Pottersville in that schmaltziest and most irresistible Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life. Pottersville is the dark, alternative reality where none of the good that protagonist George Bailey did had ever happened and instead small-town Bedford Falls became Pottersville, a neon-lit, film-noir nightmare as opposed to the small-town, mom-n-pop store paradise of reality. I always rather liked the jazzy, syncopated sleaziness of the neon-lit parallel world. Bedford Falls looks a clichéd Norman Rockwell bore. But it’s Bedford Falls which is in fact illuminated for Christmas, with simple strings of lights strung between the snowy branches of its trees. Surely it should be the other way round? Surely Pottersville would feature garish Christmas lights and monstrous Santas? The crass commercial charm of Christmas lights has been subverted by nostalgic images of cosy domesticity.
Commerce is the point of cities, it is why they exist - the promise of luxury. Bright lights, big city. And those Christmas illuminations embody the paradox that sometimes it is the nakedly commercial that can most eloquently portray our most domestic desires, our coming together and the universal language of lots of little lights.