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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 December 2004, 03:45 GMT
Bling bling merrily on high
By Martha Buckley
BBC News

Drive through the suburbs of any British town and you will not fail to notice the houses, and sometimes whole streets, lit up with festive decorations - with varying degrees of taste.

Christmas has gone bling, with a massive range of lights on the market, from modest "icicle" chains to 12ft illuminated sets of Santa and his reindeers.

House lit up at Christmas
Where one house leads, others often follow

Five years ago it was hard to find outdoor lights without going to a specialist, but they are now available in every garden centre, as well as many high street shops and online.

With more and more people catching the decorating bug, manufacturers have experienced an explosion in demand.

Jonathan Shaw, director of online lights supply firm Christmas Lights Direct, said: "It's been a very good year for us. We've sold almost everything we had.

'American trend'

"The American trend is coming over here. Over there the whole street goes barmy at Christmas.

Christmas decorations
Proud of your decorations?

"When we were children very few people trimmed up outside but now, more and more people are starting to put something in their garden, then their neighbours follow suit."

Although falling prices have probably boosted sales, Mr Shaw says people are still willing to spend hundreds on their displays.

He said: "If you want to decorate a house with icicles, you can do it for 50 or 60 but orders of 200 or 250 have not been uncommon.

"Our most expensive line was a 12ft sign saying Merry Christmas, which cost about 148, but that sold out very quickly, as did the 3D Christmas trains, which were 125."

Phil Swainston, of Surrey-based manufacturer Noma Lites, said sales had been booming especially in south-east England.

He said: "They're getting into icicle lights, rope lights, stars, snowflakes, and Father Christmases on the walls and even the big inflatables.

"We've also noticed that in south east England people tend to decorate with clear bulbs, whereas further north they are more into the multi-coloured ones.
Neighbours start getting together to do it and you end up with little pockets of people all round the country who have a nice display up
Phil Swainston

"When one house in a street is decorated, others tend to follow on. Neighbours start getting together to do it and you end up with little pockets of people all round the country who have a nice display up."

Some people go to extraordinary lengths to make sure their display is the biggest and brightest, spending thousands on decorations which take weeks to erect.

Danny and Anne Meikle have been lighting up their house in Coalburn, Lanarkshire, every year for a decade.

The display, which uses 1.2 million bulbs and 50,000-worth of decorations and equipment, can be seen for two miles away.

He has also set up a grotto in his garage, where he plays Father Christmas for five hours each day in the run-up to Christmas, giving sweets and gifts to every child that visits - last weekend 3,000 children turned up.

Charity fundraiser

He told the BBC News Website: "There's reindeers and sleighs on the roof, a 10ft fibreglass Santa, a dozen full sized Santas singing and dancing in the garden, trees, elves and numerous other lights. It beats anything in the States.

"It takes weeks to put up and another two weeks checking the bulbs prior to switching it on. It really takes two months out of your life."

It takes weeks to put up and another two weeks checking the bulbs prior to switching it on. It really takes two months out of your life
Danny Meikle

Mr Meikle, 57, a retired builder, uses the display to raise money for charity, collecting 10,000 in the first two weeks this year.

On top of the time and cash spent erecting light displays, households may look forward to a hefty electricity bill.

Mr Meikle's display needs to run through two industrial-sized electricity meters as it uses up too much power for a domestic meter - one year, he says, the display melted the main power cable supplying his village.

He is expecting an electricity bill of 4,000 to 5,000 for the Christmas period.

Power supply has also proved a problem for the Moszczynski family, who have a 250,000-light display at their home near Reading in Berkshire.

It uses up so much power that the family cannot use their kettle, washing machine or dishwasher while they are switched on and have to limit use of lights inside the house for fear of overloading the supply.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates the trouble they have gone to - they have received death threats and had things thrown at their house by people objecting to the lights.

Thousands of people visit the Santa House
Big displays can cause traffic problems
Theirs is not the only display which has lead to conflict among neighbours.

In Ayrshire, 50 residents got an injunction limiting their neighbour's 8,000-bulb display to three hours a day, forcing him to switch it off at 5pm every evening.

Businessman Robbie Raggio's fund-raising display at his home in Hove, East Sussex, was met with an anonymous letter describing it as "distasteful" and a "wasteful use of power".

Environmental impact

The letter-writer may have had a point about the environmental impact of Christmas lights.

The Energy Saving Trust says even a normal string of Christmas tree lights used for 10 hours a day for 12 days generates enough carbon dioxide to fill 12 party balloons.

The amount of power used by the larger displays means they cannot be good for the environment. But environmental groups are reluctant to dampen the Christmas spirit.

An Energy Saving Trust spokeswoman said: "It's really difficult to talk about it without it sounding like bah humbug. I think it's all right really - it's only for a short period.

"We would advise people to try to counteract the amount of energy they're using on the outside of their homes by changing their bulbs inside to energy efficient ones."

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