In early spring, a team from an interiors magazine arrived at my house in the west of England to photograph Christmas decorations for the December issue. It was fairly weird, just as the days were getting longer and brighter, to drag out the Christmas stuff and put it all up around the house again. It was even weirder trying to buy a Christmas tree (well, you try buying a Christmas tree in March), and cooking a Christmas roast with all the trimmings – partly to give the kitchen shot a greater sense of realism, but most importantly because I thought: if you’re going to be crazy, you may as well really go for it.
I remember thinking at the time that if politicians thought as far ahead as interiors magazines, we probably wouldn’t have had the global financial crisis, and most wars would be settled with a peace agreement before they had started. The other thing I thought – which I may even have tried to propagate through the pages of this newspaper – was that Christmas decorations should be natural, quiet and harmonious; that they should be limited to things you can make yourself, or which you can gather from the fields and woods. If I allowed lighting at all, I’m sure I would have written candelight or nothing.
Oh, enough already. This is all very well, but I am afraid that I’m suddenly sick and tired of that dull, organic, well-meaning good taste, which I suspect I am partly responsible for promoting. It’s time to turn over a new, outrageous leaf this Christmas.
I have to admit that, while everyone else complains about their relatives and how they don’t want to spend three days with their family, I love going home for Christmas. But why? Not just for a few merry days at the Hotel of Mum & Dad, which during the Christmas period goes into a manic overdrive of forward preparation that would put the kitchen at Claridge’s to shame. As fun as it is to take a trip down memory lane, assembling the tree baubles and Christmas cake decorations that have been used for my entire life, it’s not what I love most about Christmas.
No, I think one of the reasons I really enjoy Christmas is a ritual drive that I make one evening every year with my parents to view the lights that, with more and more remarkable results, plaster a bland suburban house and garden on a cul-de-sac a few miles down the road.
Yes, it is insane, but it is also spectacular. This building beats the stuff of American legend: every surface of the walls and roof is laced with thousands upon thousands of lights. Mechanised plastic Santas and reindeer adorn the chimney, delivering gifts in a jerky routine repeated 10,000 times before Christmas day. The trees in the garden are each lit up with lights that shimmer and twist, changing colour and rhythm; the hedgerows and kidney beds are alive with blinding colour; giant inflatable snowmen and scary dolls float softly in eerie silence above glowing lawns, watching over an illuminated crib and overseen by a flickering white neon star.
The house is one of the most creative things I’ve ever seen. The person who puts this all together has plotted and planned, setting up cables and installing stakes, even digging trenches and conduits. The scenes have been considered and laboured over for months. Imagine putting this lot up. Imagine taking it all down! You suspect the homeowner must dream of Christmas and must start the planning process in May or June. How bleakly desperate it must be in that household to witness Twelfth Night, when everything must be turned off and taken down.
In 2009, the storefront of Stella McCartney’s shop on Bruton Street, central London, was transformed into a winter wonderland of Christmas lights: holly and berries, waving Santas, Christmas puds, robins and snowflakes. It was a beautiful setting that I have never forgotten.
I suppose in my memory, McCartney is the link between that magical suburban winter garden, a million like it around the world, and the most fashionable streets in London. I like to think, above all, that they both give tremendous joy. So this year, I’m thinking the madder the better. Forget the muted decor of esteemed stores such as Liberty, in London, or John Derian in New York. No, you must turn direct to Amazon, search for “Illuminated Christmas Decorations” and get ordering, in quantity.
Try candy canes and gingerbread men from 1000bulbs.com; giant Santas and reindeers from Sears; almost anything from festivelights.com (slogan: “Lighting up your display and the internet”); and $1,500 Santas from eDecor Source.com. Lights4fun.co.uk has a list of accessories (gutter clips black cable ties/13mm rope/suction cups/5m black rubber cable) that sounds as if it belongs more in an S&M catalogue, both demonstrating the hard work required behind the scenes and not sounding like much 4fun at all.
I can’t say, however, that I’d like to be a direct neighbour. Just a few of the houses in the cul-de-sac have a smattering of lights in apologetic acknowledgement of their ambitious neighbour, and you wonder if they tire of the spectators lining up to have a look and drop their change in the charity box. I can’t say that I like to think about the energy bills either, or indeed the considerable damage to the environment. Above all, I really don’t want to think about the working conditions in so many Chinese factories, where young fingers have nimbly assembled cheap decorations. Christmas is indeed a contradictory moment. But let’s try not to reflect on all that just now. We are turning over a new leaf, after all, and you read it here first.
Christmas crackers: Tree wise men
In a town just outside San Francisco, there is a shop where visitors can celebrate Christmas almost every day of the year. As tour buses stream through Sausalito, an affluent town on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, some guides will point out the Holiday Shoppe, writes Anousha Sakoui.
The store has been a fixture in Sausalito for the past 23 years and is open 363 days a year, so locals and tourists can source decorations to deck their halls with whatever their festive heart desires. Even if that is a 24-carat gold-plated cable car ornament.
And in its windows stand a row of heavily dressed trees, including one for $220 that snows on itself. The most popular trees include themed ones, such as the “peacock” tree and an “under the sea” tree, which is adorned with baubles in the shape of mermaids and mermen. Ornaments fitting for the Californian climate include “Santa on a beach chair” and a merman dressed in denim, who lifts his shirt to show off his six-pack abs.
Others may prefer a tree fit for a fashionista. Hammacher Schlemmer’s faux fir tree is in the form of a couturier’s dress and is priced at $250.
For those determined to stand out from the crowd this Christmas, there are plenty of other options, such as coloured trees, upside down trees and, near Venice, a tree made entirely of Murano glass. There are also trees made from more mundane, everyday items.
Along the New England coast, fishing towns are behind a more unusual trend: building Christmas trees out of lobster traps. Last year in Beals, Maine, the lobster trap tree was one of the country’s tallest at 60ft and, in Rockland, Maine, where they’ve had the tradition since 2003, locals decorated their trap tree with a 5ft fibreglass lobster ornament.
Making a statement over the holidays is not just an American preoccupation. At Liberty on Regent Street, one of London’s most upscale department stores, life-size reindeer are one of its most popular Christmas items this year. “I guess it all means that there is a desire for fantasy mixed with reality ... which is what Christmas is really all about, no?” says Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty.