Just a little light entertainment

People are getting together to decorate their village, town or street. GWENDA JOYCE-BROPHY smells goodwill in the icy air
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Once upon a time, Christmas was a private affair for us Brits, celebrated behind closed curtains, with a twinkling tree, presents under the tree, kids by the fireside - and the cold, dark world shut outside. However, over recent years more and more of us have been lighting up our gardens with strings of lights and decorations. Imitating a more American style of celebrating, people are taking their decorations out of doors, sharing a bit of the Christmas spirit with the neighbours - and, of course, competing to have the best decorations in the street.

But now a new trend is emerging, and behind it is a story of true Christmas cheer. Communities are getting together, co-operating to decorate whole streets and villages so that everyone can share in the season of goodwill.

Once, these public festivities were the preserve of well-heeled shopping streets, and at the mercy of funding from local stores and businesses. Now much smaller teams are getting together to put on a show, from villages to groups of urban streets that see themselves as a community with its own identity,

Southwold in Suffolk is one such place. With a resident population of just 1,300 people, it is establishing a reputation for its Christmas lights that draws in observers and participants from miles around. "The whole thing has got progressively bigger over the past seven to nine years," says Peter Webb, who has been closely involved with the planning and organisation of the event this year. "It's really taken off." The village has a grand "switch on" ceremony - a party night when the local community takes to the streets, shops keep their doors open late, street entertainers roam and the mulled wine flows.

Harpenden in Hertfordshire is another one. "Our lights are getting more elaborate and impressive every year," says Tim Pearse, who works for Lane Fox estate agents in Harpenden. "It's becoming more important to the people who live here. Even tiny locations are laying on a spread. Cranleigh in Surrey celebrates its lights with barber quartets, Salvation Army bands and a pig roast."

Hello? Pig roasts, brass bands, and chestnuts roasting on open fires? What's going on here? Do we all, deep down, want to pretend to be characters in a Victorian scene on a Christmas card?

Well, apparently so. Research carried out this year by estate agents FPD Savills showed that 60 per cent of us are apparently hankering after some idyll of village life. And it's not rural isolation we're talking about here, but "real" village life, with all the trimmings - somewhere with a community heart, both in atmosphere and in practical terms, somewhere with a thriving village shop where you run into people you know, a decent pub, a village hall and, it would appear, an annual pig roast beneath twinkling Christmas lights.

"Many people really are looking back, and looking for a sense of belonging," says Mary Brown of Surrey estate agents Browns. And it is not only older people trying to regain some lost golden age. "It is particularly true of families moving into the area with children," she says. Families who move out of big cities - often with a sizeable chunk of money they have made from moving around and playing the market - are looking to settle and put down roots for several years ahead. "They want a sense of community because they are probably looking at it as a place they are going to stay in for quite a long time."

Robert Dyer lives with his wife and three children Emily, nine, Lily, seven and Alfred, three, in Cranleigh. He owns the local butcher's and lives over the shop, so the heart of the village is his stamping ground day and night. He participated in the Christmas lights event this year by providing the pig for the hog roast. "I see lots of young families come into the shop, who have moved here after getting tired of the pace and stress of London and other urban areas, and who are looking for a different quality of life," he says. "This is what they want."

"The Christmas lights thing is definitely part of a larger story," says Tim Pearse. "Often it is just one - albeit one of the more spectacular ones - of a whole series of events that go on all through the year. I believe these strongly reflect the sense of community. Not only that, they enhance it."

Linda and Chris Wills, who both work for HSBC, moved with their two boys, Richard and Michael, aged 10 and seven, to Harpenden, Hertfordshire two weeks ago. "We moved in the week of the switch-on of the lights, and the whole thing just seemed to sum up why we came here. The sense of community is a genuine one, we have had people knocking on the door with bottles of wine. That is something that would never happen to us if we lived in central London." So will they become big community participators now? "We're not big doers to be honest, and there's no way from a community point of view that we'd want to be on centre court. But it has given us the motivation to join in one or two things."

But surely there must be some Scrooges around - some people who grumble from behind tightly closed doors at the noise and the jollity. "Not everybody wants to get involved in all this," admits Robert Dyer. "In terms of shopkeepers, for example, it is probably about three-quarters who do."

"One evening this year, there were 250 cars backing up outside the village, waiting to come in to see the lights," says Southwold's Peter Webb. That must have led to a bit of bah-humbugging, surely. "Not really," he says. "I think most people accept it as something that is part of the life of the village."

For some, however, Christmas can not be over too soon. Uninhibited displays of flashing lights and the free reign to display more than a little kitsch taste are not to everybody's liking. "My street is a sort of unofficial community, and it is a tradition for everybody to go to town on decorations - I think they compete with each other now," moans Harriet Kirk, who lives in south-east London. "November has hardly begun and it starts. But what really gets me is the big plastic figures - to me they're the equivalent of garden gnomes, only worse because they are lit up. It sounds uncharitable, but I think there should be festive style police with the power to take things away. Thank heavens it happens just once a year."