A brief history of London’s Christmas lights

Oxford Street, London, 2011. Image: Getty.

What would Christmas, or even the weeks or months leading up to it, be without lights? They make our trees twinkle, fill our windows with a welcoming glow and set our streets alight with Christmas spirit.

One city that takes its Christmas lights very seriously is London – a bright and eventful destination all year round, of course, but even more so in the build-up to Christmas. One after the other, streets and squares are illuminated by elaborate light installations, which transform urban spaces and alter the atmosphere of the city.

But as well as being a dazzling spectacle, the history of London’s Christmas displays can shed light on the shifting relationships between citizens, local councils and corporations in the city.

The tradition began in 1954, on Regent Street, when local retailers and businesses – through the Regent Street Association – arranged for a display. The aim was to show that post-war London did not have to look “drab” around Christmas. In the 1950s and 1960s, the installations spread to other streets, with the Oxford Street Christmas display premiering in 1959. Quickly, the lights grew to be a key part of London’s festive calendar.

By the early 1970s, however, economic pressures on retailers and local councils – combined with a darkening of public opinion – meant that London went largely without Christmas lights for several years. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tradition returned once again, an initiative of local traders’ associations.

Celebrity sparkle

Today, in London’s famous West End, every street and square worth its name is lit up and presented as a sparkling centre of entertainment and – as ‘tis the gift giving season – commerce. A “dark” street during Christmas time signals to consumers that there is nothing going on, while lights guide the way, generating excitement and attracting attention.

To add to the glamour, lights are formally switched on each year by celebrities at crowded ceremonies. Big names in the past have included Kylie Minogue (Regent Street 1989 and Oxford Street 2015), the Spice Girls (Oxford Street 1996), and Helen Mirren (Bond Street 1998). Last year’s big names included Jennifer Saunders, Craig David and Holly Willoughby.

These “switch ons” are usually organised to create a buzz, bring people together and kick-start Christmas shopping. But they can also be used for other purposes. For example, in 2016, in central London’s Soho district, the Berwick Street switch on was used to raise public awareness about plans to privatise the Berwick Street Market. Joanna Lumley – who is actively engaged in the Save Soho campaign – did the honours.

Some of the city’s major cultural institutions get involved, too. The Sugar Plum Fairy – from the Royal Opera House’s feature, The Nutcracker – performed and participated in the switch on of the Covent Garden lights in 2016, reflecting the area’s close connection to the performing arts.

Over on Carnaby Street, the lights took inspiration from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on the musical revolution and rebellion of the late 1960s. This ties in with the street’s past as a hotspot of “swinging London”.

So, these events present a fantastic opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of a particular area to Londoners and tourists alike – not least because images of Christmas lights always do well on social media.

Too tacky?

Yet these festive displays have not escaped criticism. For one thing, Christmas lights are expensive: many regional towns and cities have opted out due to budget constraints. There have also been some doubts as to whether they actually improve business. In 1993, the Oxford Street Traders Association decided not to provide a Christmas lights display: local retailers were reluctant to cover the costs, because they were not convinced that lights attract shoppers.

In the late 1990s, corporate sponsors tried a more direct approach, adding large brands, slogans and logos to the displays. This time, the public complained that the lights had become too commercial, unimaginative, “cheap” and “vulgar”, prompting the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to invite architects to come up with new ways to improve London’s Christmas light displays, the best of which were exhibited at the Museum of London in 1997.

The RIBA campaign did not have an immediate effect: just one year later, Regent Street was given over to the soft drink Tango, which showered the area with bright orange bulbs and banners bearing the message “Tis the season to be Tango’d”. The display met with some considerable public scorn. Yet in 2016, it seems a different kind of branding is emerging: one which emphasises place, rather than product.

The Northbank Business Improvement District (BID) introduced Christmas lights to the Strand for the first time last year, emblazoning its name across the displays. This is part of a strategy to create a sense of place, which appeals to both visitors and investors – similar to what has been achieved on London’s South Bank. Whether or not the campaign will be enough to replace the area’s well-known moniker, “the Strand”, remains to be seen.

The ConversationIt may be that this whirlwind of shopping, tourism, atmosphere, business, branding, art, innovation, celebrities and photo ops has the power to bring us all closer together for a couple of months each year. At the very least, we can be certain that this year, Christmas in London’s West End will be anything but drab.

Henrik Linden, Senior Lecturer in Tourism and Cultural Industries Management, University of East London and Sara Linden, Lecturer in Cultural Policy and Tourism, Goldsmiths, University of London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 

In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.