Friday, December 22, 2006

Auckland Christmas Aesthetics

Last week Sarah invited me to do some Christmas light viewing. Not having seen a single house with Christmas lights, I was a little confused. But she assured me that there are a few neighbourhoods where everyone puts up lights, and then all of Auckland goes to check them out.

We headed over to Franklin Avenue in Ponsonby, and the first difference to Christmas light viewing in America was that we had to wait until about 8:30 or so, and even then it was still a little too light out to see things properly. I definitely do not miss Michigan winters where it gets dark at 5pm. The second difference was that viewing was not done from inside a heated car. Since it’s spring/summer here and the weather is beautiful, we got out of the car and walked. It was a big party on the street, complete with carolers singing about the frosty weather and jolly holly. I was surprised at the age diversity represented. Of course there were little kids (who were all thrilled to be up past their bedtime), but also a surprising amount of teenagers, young couples, and others who didn't look like the Spirit of Christmas types.

As for the lights, I should first note that I’m bit judgemental (me? judgemental?) when it comes to Christmas displays. I prefer simple monochrome gold lights or multi-colored strings, and very little else. Specifically, I like heaps of them in trees (like on Main Street in Ann Arbor), or I like the ones in a netting configuration if they’re draped over bushes/shrubs because I love the effect when they’re covered in snow. No ropes of red or blue lights, nothing flashing, and for the love of god, absolutely nothing that comes in a box with the words “giant,” “inflatable,” or “animatronic.”

Kiwis, however, seem to like whatever they can find--and as much of it as they can find. I get the sense that the options for Christmas decorations are limited, because there wasn't a whole lot of variety. Just some people had more sets than others sets than others. Those white plastic reindeer and other pre-made displays seemed to be a new addition this year. Nothing was really out of control, at least compared to the US (house on Winsted Court, I’m talking you), but “more is more” was definitely the prevailing philosophy. Surprisingly, these were the houses that everyone, young and old, oohed and aahed over. I guess I am an American snob, because a lot of what I found tacky they pronounced “beautiful.”

Although I am making a sweeping generalisation here, I feel like the Christmas lights, both in the US and here, are to be a pretty good reflection of each country's overall approach to Christmas. At home, Christmas is overdone and blown out of proportion. It's a race for who can have the latest gadgets, the brightest lights, and the deepest credit card debt. Here Christmas seems more like a time to escape to your bach (translation: holiday cabin; pronounced “batch”). Most of the celebrations are fairly restrained, so the big displays stand out as something unique and interesting, rather than garish and tacky. I am not so much a fan of Christmas, but the Franklin Street viewing experience was actually rather heartwarming. I generally think all that “Spirit of Christmas” stuff is more or less just another marketing ploy, but it’s hard to argue when a holiday brings a community out into streets for a two-week long block party.

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