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The Tradition of Christmas Light Switch-Ons and the Icons That Did Them

Delving into the history of Christmas Lights and rounding up the most iconic events during Christmas Light Switch Ons in the UK

Christmas Lights on a High Street

Artwork – Birmingham Christmas Lights, Elish Kathleen, 2020.

Christmas lights in and around towns and cities are an important part of our Christmas culture, and are an important part of spreading some much-needed Christmas cheer. This is a tradition that started way back in the 18th century among middle class households (obviously they get the good stuff first). But back then they were only on trees, in the form of candles either pinned onto a Christmas tree or melted on with wax. Between 1902 and 1914, glass balls were used to hold the candles in to then hang from the tree – and the Christmas lights were born. Christmas lights as we know them now, illuminating, electric and capitalised, were not introduced until the 1950’s.

It’s fascinating to think about how capitalised the Christmas light has become since its humble beginnings and that now, we pay to see Christmas lights and Christmas displays – and that councils and cities even bring in celebrities to turn theirs on. So here, we have compiled a list of the most iconic (in our opinion), and fascinating celebs to take the crown.

The first recorded Christmas light turn on was in 1980 at Oxford Street in London, and for a few years was done by minor celebs, I imagine until the role garnered attention and prestige. It was done by current miss worlds etc. – that kind of celebrity. The strangest thing about the Christmas light turn on is that you’d assume the celebrities turning these lights on would progressively get more and more famous as time goes on, or it would just stay at one level of celebrity – presumably D list. But it doesn’t – it’s a strange mix of D list, A list then D list again – the fluctuation of “levels” of the celebrity receiving this honour makes the already bizarre tradition even more bizarre and funny. Mostly because, why are they doing this? Do they have no money? Are councils really paying that much for them to even bother? Why do A-list celebrities do it? Surely it’s a waste of their time? Or do these celebs just love Christmas? Who knows.

The 1980s were a tough decade for the Christmas light turn-on on Oxford Street, with the most notable people in this decade to have done it being Bob Geldof (1985) and Terry Wogan in ’88, it’s clear it hadn’t really taken off yet. Other years were fluffed up with EastEnders characters and journalists.

1990 is where it really seemed to take off (in some years because, as I mentioned before, whoever organises these events for some reason cannot keep up the prestige) with Cliff Richards (not my thing but sure, famous at the time I suppose) taking 1991, it seemed to take a slump for a few years with the likes of Richard Branson (he can’t just let something be nice, can he?), Lenny Henry and the corrie cast switching them on. It then had actual royalty switch them on in ’96 when the Spice Girls lit up our lives, at christmas time. Arguably in 1996, the Spice Girls were at the height of their fame, which leaves me genuinely interested in how and why they were booked for such a lowbrow event? Nonetheless, I am gutted that I was only 2 months old and could not be there to see the moment go down in pop culture history with my own two eyes.

In the 2000’s, we saw more pop culture legends take the stand, with the likes of S Club 7, All Saints, Leona Lewis and in 2009, Jim Carey turned the Oxford Street lights on – truly iconic. The Grinch himself giving us our Christmas spirit. But not as iconic as what happened at the Birmingham Christmas Light switch-on in 2009.

The Birmingham Christmas light turn-on in 2009 was a free event, organised by the Birmingham City council and BRMB, the local radio station. It had iconic and hugely popular at the time boy band JLS performing and switching the lights on. Again, an iconic band at the height of their fame – playing at free events to turn christmas lights on? Why? Regardless of how or why they chose to play this event, they ultimately did, and the events that ensued have gone down in local history. The council, and Millennium Point, somewhere along the planning had gotten their wires crossed – and Millennium Point organised an event that would fit 5,000 people. However, the Council had organised an event that they estimated to attract around 20,000 people (lol). So you can imagine the chaos that this balls up alone would have caused, never mind that it was a free event promoting one of the most famous boy bands of the time. The event was poorly managed, and attracted thousands of drinking teenagers, which ultimately ended up causing thousands to be injured and some hospitalised after a stampede happened within the crowds trying to get a look at JLS. Truly iconic. An event that will go down in history, and will be remembered by Brummie teens and, I’m sure, JLS for years to come.

A more recent, and in my opinion more iconic Christmas Light turn on fiasco, is when Lindsey Lohan agreed (via tweet to a Kettering MP) to turn on the Kettering Christmas lights in 2016. However in true Lindsay fashion, she didn’t show up. Lindsey apologised, but the damage was already done.

The actress and Remain supporter had amazingly live-tweeted the EU referendum results – and joked at the time that she was clueless on Sunderland and Kettering’s locations in England after both areas voted to leave the European Union.

“Sorry, but #KETTERING where are you,” she wrote on Twitter. (Truth!)

A local MP replied saying the only way to renew her political reputation was to turn on their Christmas lights, and she agreed. However, it ended up being Hev from EastEnders turning them on. Despite Kettering managing to save the light switch-on with swapping one icon for another, Hev was not welcomed unfortunately! It was reported that fans who’d shown up for Lindsay were sorely disappointed and even booed Heather from EastEnders. Our poor Hev even tweeted: “Sorry 2 disappoint some folks but I’m not Lindsay Lohan! but I am going 2 b switching on Kettering Xmas lights .. The party starts here”, following the news.

A bizarre, yet iconic series of events that now more than ever, seem even more detached from reality than they already were since this year, there are no Christmas lights switch-on celebrations. So, we will have to settle with the memories of the most iconic switch-ons, and refresh ourselves with the ridiculousness of it through Youtube of these class pop culture moments!

Have a merry Christmas, from The Culture Sift xoxo

P.S. Sorry, #KETTERING but who are you??? Leave Heather alone!

Written By

Elish is co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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