We wish you a Merry Kitschmas and a Blinding New Year

We now spend £220m on illuminated decorations and 5.7m homes are lit up like Christmas trees. And how, reports David Randall

If it goes on like this, the residents of Regent Street will soon be travelling to Acacia Avenue to see the lights turned on.

This Christmas, Britons are covering their homes with illuminated decorations as never before. Drive anywhere at night, and you will see, hanging from the humblest council flat or the lordliest mansion, the result of the £220m we now spend on these lights.

B&Q, a leading outlet for outside decorations, says sales of silhouettes - lighted items in reindeer, Santa or bell shapes - are up 40 per cent on last year. These numbers are hard evidence for a true festive phenomenon. A few years ago, the Disney-esque transformation of frontages was an exception. Now, it is becoming the norm, with British Gas estimating that 5.7 million homes - one in five - will have outside decorations.

With so many displays to compete with, it takes huge investment to stand out: the Meikles, of West Lanarkshire, have reportedly spent £50,000 on their million-light show; the Moszczynskis, of Sonning, Berkshire, have so many lights they can't use electrical items in their house when the display is turned on; and a man in Suffolk has incorporated a working model helicopter into his tableau.

Despite the money individuals and whole streets raise for charity with their lights, this imported American tradition has not pleased everyone. In the Cotswolds and on Teesside, Christmas lighters have received poison pen letters from local residents offended by their "poor taste". Others object on energy-burning grounds. According to British Gas, the power consumed by external decorations this year will amount to 185 million kilowatt hours - the equivalent to that consumed by all 20 Premiership football grounds in a season.

But while energy companies and decoration-disapprovers can, with the skill and subtlety of a Jacob Marley, calculate the wattage of our homely lights, other aspects are more difficult to compute. No one has ever found a way to measure all the smiles prompted by these homegrown displays - and, in the end, they may generate far more warmth than any amount of gigawatts.

CHARITABLE CAUSE

No one would say the house of Dave and Lisa Travers is under decorated. Their home in New Addington, Surrey, has thousands of lights, but also some special features, such as the grazing Bambis on the lawn. These items do not come cheap: the Santa and reindeer on the roof cost £700, one reason why their outlay is about £3,000. But to them and their five daughters, the display is worth it - and raises money for guide dogs.

FAMILY TRADITION

The Shaws of Stourbridge have illuminated their house for 25 years, and have a better reason than most. Their daughter Rachel, 35, has Down's syndrome and still believes in Father Christmas. The extra £80 they spend on electricity to power their 18,000-light display will helpraise thousands for charity. But not every neighbour is happy. One said: "The lights are absolutely ridiculous. Visitors park all over the place."

THREATENING MAIL

Vic Moszczynski's display in Sonning, Berkshire, has 22,000 lights, 150 figurines and 10 giant inflatables. It takes the business development manager four weeks to assemble, adds hundreds to his power bill, cost £15,000, and his family cannot use electrical equipment when the lights are on. It has raised £2,300 for charity but he has received threatening mail and calls, and the council has objected to the musical lights.

FIRST TIMERS

When Ray Williams moved into his new home in Morden, south London, this year, he had no idea he'd bought into a community where festooning your large semi is de rigueur. He decided, with wife Helen, to join in, and, £900 later, the result is helping to raise money for a hospice. He has no trouble with neighbours because almost the whole street is decorated. "It makes every day feel like Christmas," he says.

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