Travel Christmas Shopping: Beware death by fairy light

Want to see Christmas to dazzling effect? Visit the suburbs of Brooklyn and Long Island, land of illuminated elves and Muppets.
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The Independent Culture
THOSE PLANNING a trip to New York over Christmas are unlikely to be dreaming about the suburbs of Brooklyn or Long Island. They're thinking Manhattan all the way: ice skating under the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, carriage rides in Central Park, magical window displays outside Bloomingdales and Santa Claus ho-ho-ing at Macey's. Which is a shame, because most visitors will never get to see the astonishing fervour with which middle America goes about decorating its homes for "the holidays".

I myself had always assumed that Chevy Chase wrapping the outside of his house with tacky decorations in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation was just another visual gag. But the decorations in the movie were positively subtle compared to what you can see out in the suburbs of New York.

Oxford Street has nothing on these quiet cul-de-sacs. Twinkling sleighs and strings of bright snowflakes are strung from tree to lamppost. Life- sized inflatable Rudolphs frolic among hardy annuals; Prancer, Dancer and the rest stand to attention around chimneys. Three-foot-tall plastic choirboys, soldiers and snowmen, illuminated from within, glow in every front yard. Fake snow, ribbons and wreaths decorate doorways; electric candles flicker in windows.

Christmas lights are everywhere: wrapped around bushes, suffocating trees, defining every door and window frame, porch and gutter. The more tasteful are white; a few are in truly alarming hues and flash in such abrasive, strobe-like sequences that you wonder how residents avoid migraines and epileptic fits. A few ambitious home-owners use strings of them to write holiday messages on the roofs of their bungalows. They must be up there for hours in the bitter December cold, stapling boxes of lights to the tarpaper.

How awful to imagine the stress if a bulb burns out, shutting the whole chain down: some poor soul has to go back up there, twiddling each and every one to find the dead link. And every year the local newspapers carry a story concerning some hapless family man who slips to his death while fixing fairy lights in the dangerously icy weather.

But just as "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bells" are far more prevalent on American television and radio than traditional carols, religion seems to play second fiddle in these decorations. Illuminated plastic Nativity scenes often show a luminescent Baby Jesus greeted in his manger not only by three wise men, but also by Santa Claus, the Nutcracker doll and a flickering Frosty the Snowman. Last year the most elaborate home we found had the Nativity tucked away under a bush, while Sesame Street characters and fluorescent-haired trolls took pride of place on the lawn. The hideous creatures flashed toothless grins as they whirled past on a miniature carousel to the tune of Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town".

That particular spectacle was a random discovery in Amityville, just an hour's drive from Manhattan along the Long Island Expressway. The decision to pick this particular suburb was based partly on a desire to see the original Amityville Horror house, where young Ronald DeFeo murdered his parents and siblings. But the house was not decked out for the holidays. The owners apparently have enough trouble with curious visitors creeping past in cars and tour buses, to want to draw more attention to themselves. Besides, the giant colonial home is in too wealthy an area for Christmas excess.

Best bets for spectacular viewing seem to be low- to middle-income neighbourhoods with many families and, at least around New York, with a hefty streak of the Italian-American influence. This can be partly credited to the Catholic tradition, but there is a somewhat more sinister reason as to why these particular ethnic communities top the house adornment charts in the area. New York is not known as a place where you can leave things outside on the street - cars, for example - and return the next day to find them untouched. A young friend who grew up in Lynbrook, LI, admitted that, like many other teenage New Yorkers, his little posse would have loved to mess with these homespun works of Christmas cheer. But in this community, petty vandalism was too risky. If you got the wrong house, well, let's just say that a certain Family would make you regret smashing their fairy lights or placing their reindeer in compromising positions.

However, this does mean that tourists driving through the area at night should have nothing to fear.

There are light shows to be found all over the city and Long Island suburbs; discovering each oddity is part of the fun. But unless you have a burning desire to see the Amityville Horror house, you'd probably do best with Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. This mostly Italian community is so well known for its competitive Christmas decorations that traffic at night can get heavy. Not nearly as over-the-top, but a quick subway ride from Manhattan, is Carroll Gardens: though the old Italian neighbourhood is fast becoming gentrified, there are still a fair number of gaudy homes.

Finally, don't forget to ask for a window seat on the plane if flying out at night - only an aerial view does full justice to those twinkling lights.