For most of us, 25 December will mark a Christmas Day unlike any other. Christmas tables will be quieter, gatherings will be cancelled, and shop fronts will be darkened. Yet the festive decorations lining the country’s streets, squares, and shopping centres are as unchanged as ever. Despite the British population’s confinement to their households, town councils and authorities have worked hard and invested a vast amount of money in lighting the nation’s silent streets.
While the financial cost and merit of this year’s street displays is certainly open to question, the environmental price of these festive aesthetics is also worth taking into consideration. According to NASA reports, outside Christmas light displays increase the planet’s brightness by up to 50 percent. This increase in illumination comes at a cost, using mass amounts of energy and amounting towards a rise in light pollution.
Many of Britain’s busiest and most notorious high streets have sought to enhance the energy efficiency of their lighting installations by switching to LED bulbs. For instance, the bulbs powering the displays on London’s Oxford Street, the self-purported ‘home of Christmas’, are powered by renewable energy sources. While LED bulbs may be considered more environmentally friendly in some respects, using 75 percent less energy than their incandescent counterparts, environmental campaigners have emphasised that the switch to LED lighting does nothing to counter the issue surrounding light pollution. Furthermore, London’s entrance into Tier 4 restrictions means that Oxford Street will be largely depleted of its usual festive shoppers, while the windows of many of the street’s non-essential shops will fall into darkness, questioning both the economic and environmental worth of maintaining the festive illuminations.
However, the conflict between festive aesthetics and environmental responsibility is complicated by the emotional importance of this year’s festivities. For many, Christmas this year will provide an opportunity for celebration and good cheer after a year of uncertainty, chaos, and loss. The Christmas installations illuminating the country’s radically changed high streets have come to represent a single indication of normality and stability following twenty twenty’s upheaval of routine and tradition. As cheesy as it sounds, the fairy lights and garlands overhanging empty shop-fronts remind us to recognise that light and beauty can be found even on the darkest of winter evenings.
This year’s illuminations on Oxford Street further complicate the debate surrounding the environmental ethics of lighting the nation’s deserted streets over the festive period. The 222,000 lightbulbs which contribute towards the display align to formulate a tribute to the heroes that have eased the turmoil of twenty twenty. Each week the name of a different hero appears in lights above London’s city centre, serving as a collective thank you and a reminder of the human resilience and hope that has persisted despite the calamity of coronavirus.
Yet even these commendable installations come at an environmental cost. If this year’s pandemic has taught us anything it is that the human race is unequipped to deal with planetary disruption. The international citizen-science campaign team, Globe at Night, has sought to emphasise light pollution’s detrimental impact on the environment, asserting that too much light pollution ‘washes out starlight in the sky, interferes with astronomical research, disrupts ecosystems, has adverse health effects, and wastes energy.’ In order to ensure that this year’s festivities lead us into a happier new year, our aesthetic methods of celebration must be re-evaluated so that they do not compromise our environmental security.
Image: Oxford Street Christmas 2020