Let There Be Light…

29th November 2008

Geraint Jones gets ready for the festive season

We humans are a tropical species. We evolved in Africa and we're not meant to live in such advanced northern latitudes where at this time of year the days become little more than brief, murky interludes between hour upon hour of darkness.

As the old year begins to droop and drowse, and people batten down the hatches for the onset of winter, spring seems no more than a faint pin-prick of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel and it is easy to let it all get you down.

Yet in the very depths of winter, when the sun seems barely to climb above the horizon, there is fun and feasting to enjoy, bright lights and merry-making to chase away the worst of this depressing time of year. And when the fun is finished, the days have already begun to lengthen again, a sure sign that spring and all its glories are not too far away.
If office-bound commuters struggling through the murk of the winter mornings, or children lugging heavy bags to school in the wind and rain take comfort in the coming of Christmas for this reason, it is not surprising. Mankind has celebrated at mid-winter for thousands of years.

The Christmas festivities are one way of coping with the miseries of the northern winter, a way of sticking two fingers up to the elements. Above all, they are a celebration of light in the darkness, or the expectation of rebirth amid the barren landscape of mid-winter. And despite the miracles of modern technology, which bestow light and heat upon us any time of the day or night at the flick of a switch, that ancient need to strike a blow against the night remains with us. How else does one explain the modern phenomenon of Christmas lights?
Be aware that I am not referring to festive lights as once they were, a rather dainty and unreliable chain of coloured bulbs wrapped around the Christmas tree or adorning a mantelpiece or window frame…

Oh no, things have moved along apace since then. Now we have displays which would not look out of place at the London Palladium. Somehow, over the last few years, we Britons have made the transition from fairy lights to floodlights, from decorating our Christmas tree to adorning our whole home and garden. Walk down just about any street over the next couple of weeks and you will see what I mean.

Christmas tableaux will be played out in lights on thousands of buildings up and down the country. Houses, gardens, garages, gazebos – and even garden gnomes – will all get the treatment, being adorned with lights of every kind of size, shape, colour and intensity. There will be illuminated snowmen, Santa Clauses, reindeer, sleighs, elves and, if you look hard enough, there might even be a few brightly lit nativity scenes.

Of course there are many who sneer, who regard these displays as vulgar ostentation, who yearn maybe for a more traditional Christmas of holly, ivy, mistletoe and mulled wine. Yet for all the hi-tech brashness, it is difficult to be too unkind about the contribution these offerings make to the festive experience.

The first question that springs to mind is: why? Why go to all the time, trouble and expense of decorating the outside of your house when you spend just about all your time inside it?

Scrooge might argue that this can be nothing else but vanity – conspicuous consumption, in modern parlance… a desire to demonstrate to the world that you can put on a show and that that money is less important than entering into the spirit of the occasion.
Or maybe it is that very spirit which is important? Perhaps it is a hugely unselfish act? For most of the time the very people who erect these behemoths do not get to enjoy them because they are indoors, snuggling up to the central heating radiators while winter rages outside. The display can only, therefore, be for the benefit of passers-by, those who have to be out in the cold and dark. The lights exist to spread a message of good cheer and conviviality.

In fact you could go as far as to argue that they are a rather grand, big-hearted gesture. Hang the expense, they seem to say, for these few weeks at least it is more important to reach out to one's fellow man than to watch the pennies. And that’s why I'm looking forward to the coming days, during which time I will be eagerly scanning my locality for the first signs of Christmas lights fever. A near neighbour usually has a modest display by modern standards but charming nonetheless – just a few multi-coloured lights which spill over his window sills and flash in a sequence that starts at the bottom of his house and ends at the roof. He puts it up early and I regard its emergence, rather like that of the cuckoo in spring, as the first sign of Christmas.

After that the domino effect kicks in and lights start sprouting everywhere. A particular highlight is a house a few streets away where they indulge in an elaborate structure which involves lights coming on in a sequence depicting Santa scaling the wall and alighting on the roof en route to the chimney. It must take ages to put up and cost a small fortune to run. I find myself taking detours to check if has appeared and when it does, it has a strangely comforting effect. All is well with the world, or at least this little corner of it.

Any day now the Christmas lights season will begin. Or at least I hope it will. Maybe increased awareness of global warming will put the squeeze on this most profligate of festive customs? Maybe the onset of hard times will cure us of light fever?
This would be entirely understandable, but I do hope it doesn't happen. Christmas is all about trying to forget your troubles for a little while – and these displays, unsubtle as they are, sure do help.

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