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Sunday, December 21, 1997 Published at 13:45 GMT

Special Report

Shedding light on Christmas
image: [ Festive glory in the heart of London ]
Festive glory in the heart of London

To venture on to the shopping streets of London at Christmas, you need two things: cash and courage.

Cash speaks for itself. But you also need to be brave to survive being crammed sardine-like into the various emporia of Oxford Street and Kensington.

Britain's capital at Christmas does, nonetheless, have its attractions The famed Yuletide decorations are free to view and at their best when the shopping frenzy ebbs and the chances of being crushed are minimised.

The combined histories of the most notable of London's festive illuminations - in Regent Street, Oxford Street and Trafalgar Square - go back over 50 years and are festooned with varying proportions of calm and strife.

This year has been no exception. Regent Street, criticised for the size and commercialism of the sponsor Yves Saint Laurent's logo, was forced by Westminster City Council to replace the offending garland with a regulation size version. Oxford Street on the other hand, has simply been berated for the paucity of its offering.

[ image: Advert at Advent: Regent Street this Christmas]
Advert at Advent: Regent Street this Christmas
Lack of imagination and too heavy a reliance upon the ghosts of baubles past have been the most widely voiced complaints in recent years. So much so that the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Museum of London felt there was inspiration to be found in this festive desert. Ten of Britain's most skilled architects were commissioned to produce an exhibition of their individual flights of fancy for Oxford Street's Yuletide future.

The ideas on display at the museum range from the elegant to the bizarre - a simulation Norwegian Wood to a space-age Christmas mirror ball. But all have fuelled the creativity of the public in the associated competition Turned On: Campaign for Better Christmas Lights.

But why get in such a lather about what is, effectively, an arrangement of coloured bulbs? Well, it is tradition and eventually tradition becomes heritage. To put on a poor show is therefore to let the side down. As one lady shopper looking heavenwards in Regent Street put it: "It's almost unpatriotic to have a dismal display down here at Christmas. A lot of people come, some even from abroad, to Regent Street and Oxford Street specially to see a good display to really get them in the mood for Christmas. It's become just as much a part of British life as the Royal Family."

Regent Street's lights first went up in 1954. Prompted by an article in the Daily Telegraph commenting on how drab London looked at Christmas, the retailers and businesses which made up the Regent Street Association organised and financed the first display. Oxford Street and its corresponding Association followed suit in 1959. Back then, the lights were so great a draw that they inspired an unsuccessful attempt in the House of Lords to bring action against the responsible authorities for causing chaos and obstruction.

[ image: The magic of the West End stage lit up Regent Street in 1994]
The magic of the West End stage lit up Regent Street in 1994
With a reputation for elegance and a declared conservation area, Regent Street has traditionally chosen lights on themes such as A Heaven Full of Stars or Imagination Chandeliers. Oxford Street, as London's most popular shopping street, has more of an eclectic approach, in keeping with the vagaries of public taste.

Dark days came to London's centre at Christmas in the 1960s. The lights went out in Oxford Street in 1967 and four years later Regent Street also succumbed. Nothing changed until 1978 when financial power was restored. The resulting laser show devised by Oxford Street was a brave attempt but deemed just that little too dangerous.

[ image: Star spangle in Oxford Street 1997]
Star spangle in Oxford Street 1997
In 1979 there was a resumption of normal practices and funding has been an issue since then. In some years Regent Street has seen interesting variety as the lights take inspiration from their sponsor. Disney's Aladdin and Cameron Mackintosh's Celebration of West End Musicals have starred. But, for the last three years, we've had Flashing Crowns with Stars in Regent Street and a hotch potch of Christmas motifs in Oxford Street.

Executive Officer of the Regent Street Association, Annie Walker, is aware of the need to spruce things up: "In order to maintain a reasonable display, we need funding. The present display was bought three years ago and although it looks very nice, it's time to move on," she said.

Despite the controversy, the lighting ceremony remains a matter of national interest and celebrity aspiration. To be invited to be chief switch thrower in Oxford Street means you are currently a people's favourite - take pop stars the Spice Girls and Peter Andre for example. And in Regent Street, you join a long line of Royals and choice notables such as former Prime Minister, John Major, and champion jockey Frankie Detorri.

[ image: Frankie and Pete added this year's celebrity sparkle]
Frankie and Pete added this year's celebrity sparkle
Other incidents of note aside from the comings and goings of the funding saga have been the fall of an 18-inch electric candle from its fitting over Oxford Street in 1959. It happened again later that same year, only the falling article was 15ft long and this time it caused a death.

In 1963, the lighting of London was postponed as a mark of respect to the recently assassinated John F Kennedy. And in 1989, the great switch on in Oxford Street bowed to the power of pop celebrity, waiting several weeks past its usual mid-November date for Kylie Minogue to make a window in her hectic schedule.

Norwegian cheer

The history of the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree has, by comparison, been one of minimal fuss. The story behind it is one based in true traditional Christmas values of generosity and thanksgiving.

In 1940, King Haakon VII of Norway fled his country hotly pursued by the Germans. He found asylum in Britain and set up a Norwegian Government in exile. For five years, in a house off London's Hyde Park, he was busy planning the means of his eventual return home.

[ image: Christmas panorama of Trafalgar Square]
Christmas panorama of Trafalgar Square
So grateful were the Norwegians for Britain's help that they decided to send an annual gift which measured up to the extent of their thanks and respect. The majestic Norwegian spruce was chosen.

The very first tree in 1947 was 48ft and was presented to Britain two days before Christmas by the Norwegian Ambassador Hr Prebensen, after it had taken four days to dig a 6ft hole in the middle of Trafalgar Square. "This is a symbol of the extremely close and cordial relations existing between Norway and Britain," he said. "I am convinced that these relations will continue."

Although the tree is about 75ft, not much else has altered in its 51-year history. Every year it is picked out by the Head Forester from the 17,500 hectares of Oslo's municipal forests. It is carefully cut down in an intricate procedure involving tractor, clamp and cradle and transported to Oslo docks from where it begins its journey to Felixstowe.

At first light the tree is crane-lifted into the now permanent setting equipped with socket, clamp and electrical point in the square. Last but not least, it is shrouded in its traditional Norwegian mantle of 500 white lights surmounted by a star which are turned on at a special ceremony attended by Norwegian Embassy guests and British officials and heralded by the choir of St Martin-in-the-Fields.

The lights shine out every day from noon to midnight until twelfth night. But its journey doesn't finish there. At the International Woodworking Exhibition at Wembley Exhibition Centre in February they will be selling master craftwork in aid of Children in Need, made from genuine Norwegian pine.

[ image: Norway continues to spruce up Trafalgar Square at Christmas]
Norway continues to spruce up Trafalgar Square at Christmas
But it hasn't been all sweetness and lights. Cordiality has been threatened on more than one occasion. In 1960 there were plans to charge Norway a higher electricity bill until Parliament intervened. In 1980 Westminster Council wanted to stop the tradition to save the 5,000 cost.

The tree's physical fortitude has been tested too. It suffered breakages in 1978 and 1994. Protesters decided it would be effective to chain themselves to it in 1987. It has even been subjected to a chain-saw attack.

But try as some might, not even Brussels bureaucrats, with claims about the breaking of import restrictions, have been able to fell the mighty pine.

Such is the scene in London this Christmas. But, if the winners of the Turned On competition get to put their futuristic designs into practice it could all look very different before long.

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Adding sparkle to London

London's bright past

Norwegian Christmas cheer

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