Out of America: Invasion of the inflatable Santas

The nation's front yards are all lit up for Christmas and the tackier the better

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What with the sub-prime mortgage crisis, tumbling house prices and soaring heating costs not to mention that a recession may be just around the corner this ought to be a pretty subdued holiday season. Not so, however, to judge from the way-out Christmas decorations you find in the American front garden.

The US may be slipping in global economic league tables, but when it comes to Christmas lights and Yuletide paraphernalia, it's still the undisputed champion. This habit is driven by individualism and by plain old American excess. Whoever heard of energy waste and global warming?

The trend is not new. Electric Christmas lights are one of America's gifts to civilisation, dating back to 1887, when the vice-president of the Thomas Edison company created a sensation by putting up a tree with 80 individual lights at his home in New York. One thing led to another, until an Arkansas businessman, Jennings Osborne, was staging a show at his three-house estate in Little Rock that used 3.2 million lights, which caused huge local traffic jams every winter as people came to see this American wonder.

Eventually, the neighbours got so fed up they sued, and in 1994 the state's Supreme Court ordered the display be toned down, at which point Osborne donated the whole shebang to Walt Disney World in Florida. But his spirit lives on in millions of front gardens across the country.

Last year, I bought a wire-frame reindeer lit with tiny white bulbs to adorn our front lawn. When I told my son how much I liked it, he got me another. So now we have a pair, and when you turn the lights on, a miniature motor makes their heads bob up and down, as if nuzzling each other as they graze.

Such is my contribution to what is now a $16bn (8bn) a year Christmas decoration industry here. Given the low entry-level cost, you can understand why the sector has boomed. In our local drugstore, a 300-light box costs just $10. Splurge as little as $50, and you've got yourself a small Broadway show. But every trend breeds a hideous mutant, and Christmas decorations are no exception. The hot new items are giant inflatable nativity scenes, Santas and assorted characters who may have as little to do with Christmas as Tom and Jerry. The figures can run to 8ft tall, and cost $300 apiece or more. They can obscure some houses entirely. They are kitschy beyond words, and often downright bizarre.

One lawn not far from us boasts a Santa Claus in a transparent plastic globe evidently inspired by those small ball-shaped ornaments you shake to make snowflakes fly. However, from afar, this unfortunate specimen looks as if he's in one of the those decontamination tents that house people suspected of carrying some dreadful infectious disease. The saving grace is that a new type of criminal vigilante has emerged, touring neighbourhoods and stabbing the inflatable monstrosities.

Such is the buccaneering spirit of Christmas 2007. There's even a website now to track the phenomenon, called www.tackychristmasyards.com, where you can submit photos of the most over-the-top examples. One depicts a variant of my own two-reindeer tableau except that this one has the unfortunate beasts suspended upside down as if they've been shot, with strings of red fairy lights to denote the blood. The thing is in dubious taste but, I have to admit, rather fetching.

The site is all good fun, but it makes you wonder. "What are people doing?" asks Kat Shumar, the Indianapolis woman who launched the site. "With four or five of those inflatables, you've probably spent the equivalent of your monthly mortgage payment." Christmas, she adds, "is a season of minimalism. Too much of anything is not a good thing." Dream on. At this time of year, the concept of excess is unknown. Who cares about mortgages, sub-prime or otherwise, or even foreclosure, when the Christmas lights are on?

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