It may feel like it’s earlier each that the Christmas lights in town go up, and, in the cold weather, under the lights’ cheery glow, the shoppers throng Grafton and Henry streets to begin their shopping.
But it’s not.
Over the years, there hasn’t been a uni-directional Christmas Creep in the city centre. It’s been more like a Christmas Ebb and Flow.
Scanning the Irish Times archive, the first report of Christmas lights being switched on in Dublin is on 19 December 1953, when a 25-foot-tall Christmas tree at the Mansion House was illuminated.
“Christmas in Dublin will this year, electrically speaking at any rate, be the brightest for many years,” says the article. Fairy lights went up on George’s Street, and coloured lights up on O’Connell Street.
In 1957 and 1959 the lights went up in late November.
But then, on 14 November 1964, a photograph was published in the Irish Times of the Christmas lights and decorations on Grafton Street, which had been switched on the previous night.
That year, back in 1964, the lights had been switched on earlier than they have been this year. This year, Grafton Street lit up last Sunday, which was 19 November.
So that stretch up to 1964 was the ebb. Or maybe the flow?
In any case, things later started moving in the other direction. By 1985, the lighting-up of the city had moved back into December.
An Irish Times article on 4 December 1985 said, “it was the formal switching on of the Dublin City Centre lights, by the Lord Mayor yesterday.”
And so it went, forward and backward, earlier and later: in 1993, it was 25 November when the lights went on in O’Connell Street; in 2008, the lights went on from 10 November, reportedly to encourage shoppers at a time of deep recession.
Things have stabilised of late.
For many years, the lights have been turned on in mid-November, says Clyde Carroll, director of marketing with DublinTown, the city-centre business-improvement district, which has organised the lights for the last 10 years.
“People think its earlier, but it is not,” he says.
DublinTown totally refutes any allegations that it is responsible for Christmas Creep. “It’s not our fault,” says Carroll.
“The shopping centres in the suburbs always go earlier […] and if the businesses in the city had their way they would go at the beginning of November too,” he says.
In London, they switch on their lights earlier than Dublin. It was 7 November this year there, but in Dublin there is an old tradition of not decorating the city centre before Armistice Day on 11 November, says Carroll.
Before DublinTown was established, the Christmas lights in the north inner city were organised by the Henry Street and Mary Street Partnership, he says. “The businesses would have a whip around to get the money for the lights,” he says.
“Back then it was such an expense to put them up, they wanted to get longevity out of them, it was always six weeks, mid-November right through December,” he says.
When Is Santy Coming?
It seems that adults are no better than children when it comes to pestering people for information about Christmas.
DublinTown fields questions from August each year about when they will switch on the Christmas lights, says Carroll. “People go crazy for the Christmas lights,” he says.
They were getting so many queries about the lights this year, that they announced the date on 12 October before announcing the full plans, he says. “As soon as we did that, it went ballistic.”
DublinTown gets complaints every year from people saying that the lights are being put up too early, Carroll says. Once the lights are on, though, people love them, and say they make the city look beautiful, he says.
As Christmas approaches, people usually start writing to DublinTown, saying they should leave the lights up all year round, he says. “They brighten up the streets and they add atmosphere to the streets” is the gist of the messages, he says.
Like Moths to a Flame
Once the lights are switched on, footfall in the city centre increases dramatically, says Carroll. “It’s creating an environment and an atmosphere where people want to be, and they will come into town for it,” he says.
The average daily footfall in the city centre is 300,000 to 350,000, but on a Saturday in December, that could go up to 500,000, he says. This increased footfall definitely boosts sales for city shops, he says.
Once the lights are on, “all you see is people standing under the lights, taking photographs, selfies, holding hands, marriage proposals, everything”, says Carroll. “It definitely changes people’s outlook and makes people happy.”
But the traditional Christmas shopping day on 8 December, when country people supposedly descended on Dublin city centre, doesn’t exist anymore, Carroll says. “There is no change in footfall or sales on that day.”
In the Shops
On Saturday 11 November shoppers at the Jervis Centre, entering from Abbey Street were greeted by a massive polar bear.
Life-size elves toiled along the side of the escalator. Christmas carols blared through the speakers, and Santa’s Grotto opened that day.
“The shops are putting up decorations from the first of November and Santa’s Grotto opens six weeks before Christmas,” says Marie Nolan, a slim woman with long light-brown hair and a brown jacket, a week later in the Jervis Centre.
“You should see the queues for Santa already,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s a bit mad.”
But Kim Daly, a manager in the Jervis Centre, says that they decorate at around the same time every year.
Sales increase once Christmas decorations go up, Daly says. “People do seem to shop for Christmas a lot earlier than five or ten years ago,” she says.
However, it has been normal for people to do a lot of their Christmas shopping in November for quite some time. Back in 1976, RTÉ reported that most people buy toys six weeks before Christmas.
The Christmas windows in Switzers and Arnotts were always lit up in mid-November, says Carroll of DublinTown.
Indeed, a 20 November 1992 photo in the Irish Times shows shoppers gazing at the display in Switzers on Grafton Street.
Perhaps the only real evidence of a serious change in culture this year is that Brown Thomas launched their Christmas shop in August.
Carroll queried whether this was a gimmick, but says he received assurances from the retailer that it was a response to requests from shoppers, who want to spread the cost of Christmas over several months.