35. Are Christmas lights just for Christmas?

So, as I’m packing up my decorations for another year, I couldn’t resist leaving a set up. My question is, is that seasonally induced sentimentality, or is there something more going on? They’re so appealing somehow, and as my doctoral candidacy involves researching light festivals, I’m constantly thinking about the meaning of lights, and pondering how we experience them in our lives. My lovely Swedish house-mate, M, has an incredible knack of placing lights within the house. My lovely Canadian house-mate, K, has an incredible knack of making the house smell like freshly baked goodies, but that’s another story.

I had left it late this year to replace last year’s broken lights, and in my desperation (I’d forgotten that Christmas commodities start being flogged post the August Bank holiday!) I bought a set which were too big for my little tree. They were about to be side-lined when M performed her Scandinavian magic and dangled them beautifully between the kitchen and living room, and voila – instant cosy in a 10 metre space. And before I get side-tracked into discussing the Norwegian domestic lighting practices of Hygge, as I’m looking at outdoor festivals, I will just mention that the practice of Hygge, particularly candles, is discussed in terms of feeding the soul and gathering people together. These are phenomenon which I have also observed many times during my field research, at over 25 light festivals and events. I’m particularly interested in lights which are carried and which are either made themselves by local people, eg a paper lantern, or they feature in events organised by residents without any involvement from agents of cultural policy, eg artists or local authorities. These events can be intensely experienced by participants, as residents from a geographic community gather to take part in what can be the biggest gathering of local people in any one year. I have lots of data demonstrating feelings of ‘togetherness’, ‘community pride’ and ‘strength’, around families and groups gathering. My excellent colleagues Tim Edensor and Steve Millington have written extensively about lighting, and within their Christmas lights paper (Illuminations, Class Identities and the Contested Landscapes of Christmas, 2009) they talk about encountering generosity of spirit, how the light-ee’s expressed giving something back to their neighbours and local community. They also talk about how lights can produce liberated behaviours of fun, excitement and joy, which I have also encountered, but what intrigues me most, is how the lights release the feelings of togetherness and, really, love.

So back to my humble string of lights, now promoted to a year-round appearance. They have a pretty iconic shape – the humble light bulb – which is as yet unclaimed by the reproduced objet of our climatic or secular seasons, now seemingly culturally defined by what we can buy to express them. The light-bulb shape has a universality therefore on which I am free to bestow any meaning at all I suppose. And that meaning for me is that I want my home to be comfortable, warm and welcoming, not just at Christmas, but all year round. And I want my house-mates and visitors to feel that too.

My research involves looking at the annual cycles involved in producing public light festivals, but there are resonances in the everyday too, in that our lives are defined by these seasonal and cultural fluctuations. Now into the New Year – which I have to say is my favourite time of year, free from any number of excesses and full to the brim of promise – I am feeling hopeful and positive. I’ve got a very busy year ahead with lots of challenges and already packed with significant life-changes (I’ve just moved cities!). One of my most exciting projects is helping to organise this year’s PGR mid-term conference at Manchester Metropolitan University, which our fab committee are all excited about. We’re hoping to show delegates a flavour of the great city of Manchester and produce a welcoming, friendly and knock-your-socks off conference! So, I’m looking forward to that and what else life throws at me.

So this is why I find significance in the whole putting–up and packing-way waltz of Christmas lights –  they make you feel warm and fuzzy, but when they’re put away, though I always feel chagrin, I’m happy to do it because I KNOW I’ll be seeing them again next year – they are a temporary delight in a constant year. This is how our lives are, full of rituals punctuating the ebb and flow of our experiences over time. And as I packed way, I reflected on last year and the year ahead, and so I think I also left the lights up as a nod to the challenges and changes I know are coming, ensuring that when I’m home I feel warmth, welcome and stability. In the same way as there’s a reassurance to the plea ‘leave the light on’, I find reassurance in my little sequined bulbs everytime I step over the door.