London is a city that takes the Christmas lights very seriously. Its streets and squares are illuminated by impressive installations which alter the atmosphere of the city and transform the urban spaces.

The history of London’s Christmas displays sheds light on the relationships between citizens, local councils and corporations in the city. It started in 1954, on Regent Street, when local retail and businesses decided together to arrange a display. The purpose was to show that the post-war London did not have to look grey during Christmas time. The installations spread to Oxford Street in 1959 and many other streets to the point that it became a key part of London’s festive calendar. Due to economic pressures on retails and local councils and the dark opinion of the public, London went largely without Christmas lights by the early 1970s, for several years. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tradition returned once again due to an initiative of local traders’ associations.

Celebrity sparkle

Today the lights guide the way, generating excitement and attracting attention. Every street and square worth its name is lit up and presented as a sparkling centre of entertainment.

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).

These “switch on” are usually organised to bring people together and “turn on” the  Christmas shopping. However, there can be other purposes as well. In 2016, the Soho district, the switch on was used to raise public awareness about plans to privatise the Berwick Street Market. The lights on Carnaby Street where inspired by the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition on the musical revolution and rebellion of the late 1960s.

These events present a fantastic opportunity to showcase the uniqueness of a particular area to Londoners and tourists. The last but not the least is Images of Christmas lights which always do well on social media. Yet these festive displays have not escaped criticism. Many regional towns and cities due to budget constraints decided that Christmas lights are expensive: There were some doubts as to whether they actually improve business. For example, in 1993, the local retailers were reluctant to cover the costs, because they were not convinced that lights attract shoppers.

Bringing back a sense of purpose and place

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.

RIBA have an immediate effect just one year later when 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.

In 2016, a different kind of branding was emerging. One which emphasises place, rather than a 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.

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