CityMetric Advent 1: Manchester's 30-year history of creepy giant Santas

The Christmas market in Manchester's Albert Square. Image: Manchester City council.

We love Christmas round here. Bloody love it. Honestly, it's been a constant battle of will not to have that Fairytale of New York (city themed Christmas song, innit) blaring out since about 15 October. Anyway, to celebrate the imminent arrival of our lord Santa, we've decided to do a Christmas themed post every day until the big day. Think of it as a sort of advent calendar, only with municipal government policy instead of chocolate.

To kick us off, we've decided to take a look at Manchester's long and distinguished history of oh my god what is that thing my god it's eating the mayor.

Image courtesy of Luke Montague on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

Installing the giant Santa on the side of the Town Hall has been a Mancunian tradition since the mid 1980s. The city's first Santa came in the form of an 80-foot blow up doll, which clung to the corner of the clock tower like he really, really liked it:

Image courtesy of Manchester Archives+ on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

That one, in the words of the Manchester Evening News:

was pensioned off because after six years he was “worn out and shabby”.

But even before then he had suffered the indignity of losing air on several occasions and had to undergo frequent surgery to repair him.

Stone gargoyles were responsible for wounding Santa on at least two occasions.

Gotta watch those gargoyles.

After a while, then, he was replaced by this guy, who looks much jollier, at least until he gets hungry.

Image courtesy of Duncan Hull on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

That Santa, too, was retired in 2007. These days, the city instead uses a giant illuminated yellow chap:

Image courtesy of Raver Mikey on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

He’s affectionately known as the "Zippy Santa", after a certain kid's TV character.

Image courtesy of Raver Mikey on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.

This Santa, luckily, isn't nightmarish in any way, so-

Image courtesy of Constant Weader on Flickr, licenced under creative commons.


Yeah, so anyway, if you have kids, maybe best to avoid Manchester city centre for the next few weeks, eh?

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This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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