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Let there be Christmas light! How the UK is keeping the magic of the season on the high street

The towns who are going to great lengths to make sure their Christmas lights stay on during the cost of living crisis

In Newburgh, a little town in Fife, Christmas starts early. As summer begins, school children start imagining what their dream Christmas light would look like for an annual light-design competition. A smiling, dancing Christmas tree, perhaps? Or maybe a take on the traditional reindeer, but with two legs? Or for the more historically inclined child, a luminous green festive dinosaur wrapped in baubles?  

Each year since 2001, Newburgh has replaced one of the usual festive motifs that hang on the high street’s 39 lampposts with a competition winner. More than 20 lights designed by local children have now been incorporated into the town’s annual display. At a cost of £800 to £1,100 per design, the money has to be found from somewhere.  

Councils across the UK have spent much of 2022 making the incredibly difficult decision of which services to cut. Faced with a £3.2billion budget shortfall next year, they have had to weigh up the cost benefits of libraries, children’s centres and community events. And yet, people are in greater and greater need of support. Two-thirds of UK households will be trapped in fuel poverty by January unless something is done, research by the University of York has warned. Over 3,000 warm banks have been set up as places of refuge for people struggling to heat their homes, many of which are funded by local councils. But they’re facing a losing battle. After all, there is no magic money tree, even at Christmas time. 

Arlo Nicol’s dinosaur Christmas tree from 2020
Arlo Nicol’s dinosaur Christmas tree from 2020.

Guildford Council was one of the first to announce that it could not “afford or justify” funding its annual twinkly lights switch-on event, which attracts more than 7,000 people. Likewise, the small cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire announced, with sadness, that the city council had unanimously ruled to scrap the switch-on event owing to cost concerns. On London’s Oxford Street, the epi-centre of festive capitalism, the lights are on a timer, from three o’clock in the afternoon until 11 at night, when pubs kick out punters.  

The crux of the matter is this: is it wise, fair even, to splash the cash on pretty, twinkly lights, in the midst of an energy crisis? Resoundingly, the majority of councils across the country have said YES! In a year in which “permacrisis” has been declared the Collins Dictionary word of the year, the lights must go on. 

“When times get hard, some of the things that support families, keep them together, support mental health and wellbeing, they’re some of the first to go when money becomes a challenge,” explains Stuart Dark, leader of the local council in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk. The borough is the fifth-biggest in England, composed of quaint market towns and communities built around a parish church. People living in this rural area are also some of the most at risk of experiencing fuel poverty, according to Community Action Norfolk.  

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Switching on King’s Lynn’s Christmas lights in 2019. Photo: Borough Council of King's Lynn and West Norfolk
Present and correct: Spectators join in the fun at the switching on of King’s Lynn’s Christmas lights in 2019. Image: Borough Council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk

“Christmas events and decorations are about getting people together. It’s about making them feel a little bit happier. We felt this year, more than ever, we needed to do it,” Dark says.  

In the town of King’s Lynn, the Christmas lights are up, with no scrimping on the trimmings: a lantern parade, a special guest to flip the switch and a band to bring people out onto the streets for the first Christmas without restrictions in two years. Dark emphasises that the council is also supporting initiatives like warm spaces, that are plugging the gaps for people who are struggling. “If we weren’t supporting them then (cutting the Christmas fund) is a conversation that would be justified,” he says, “but we are doing both, it’s not a binary choice.” 

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Remember when Notre Dame in Paris caught fire, and the world’s super-wealthy rushed to open their purses, pledging at least €750million (£660m) for the rebuild in 10 days? Critics were quick to point to France’s 300,000 homeless people, asking, could that money not be used to house them? But in an ideal world, perhaps this world, it is possible to do both.  

“These things aren’t either or,” says Dark. It’s not a question of people having their basic needs met or getting a little bit of beauty to bring some sparkly light relief. Humans need both.  

And it seems the majority of councils agree. The Big Issue contacted five of the councils most at risk of fuel poverty in the UK to find out whether their display had been affected by funding cuts. Sadly, we didn’t have the time or resources to accept all five invitations to Christmas lights switch-ons that we received in positive response.

East London’s Newham Council said it was increasing its Christmas activity this year with a series of switch-on events. Under the campaign of ‘We are Together at Christmas’, a council spokesperson told The Big Issue that with one in four people in Newham experiencing loneliness and half of children living in poverty, they wanted to make the most of the opportunity to bring the community together. And in the Scottish town of Newburgh, it simply “hasn’t come up to use the money for something else”, says Shona Gray, chair of Newburgh Action Group. In fact, the money couldn’t go to something else. It’s raised by the town’s population specifically for the festive display. Throughout the year, coffee mornings and raffles are held to help raise the funds, with the town charity shop also pitching in. 

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In 2020, the town nearly had to scrap plans to add another hand-drawn design to the collection due to a lack of funds. A GoFundMe page was created, and one local woman sewed and sold face masks to raise £2,000 to pay for the display to go up. Gray recalls the socially distanced switch-on, during which people were asked to cluster in family groups around their nearest lamppost, looking up as the twinkling lights flickered on. 

But most years, when the lights are switched on, “the first thing the children do is run out and find their light or their friend’s light”, says Gray. There are even people in Newburgh who’ll be showing their own children the lights they designed at the start of the millennium.  

“It brings a lot of happiness and joy to people, it’s light relief,” she chuckles.  

‘Happy Nemo’, by Conrad Melville
This year’s winning competition design for Newburgh, Happy Nemo by Conrad Melville.

This year, a grinning, glowing tangerine fish, topped with a Santa hat (of course), is swimming up Newburgh High Street. Dubbed ‘Happy Nemo’ by the competition judges, it’s the creation of nine-year-old Conrad Melville, who says he was inspired by the town’s salmon fishing history. While it’s going to take a lot more to thaw the ‘permacrisis’ that has been 2022, it’s a start. 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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