All lit up

The Christmas light displays are a London tradition dating since 1948, when the Regent Street Association decorated the street with Christmas trees. Lighting had not been allowed until 1949 following lifting of wartime restrictions. But it took an article in the Daily Telegraph which admonished retailers on how drab post-war London looked to galvanise Regent Street shops to start the tradition of Christmas lights, that today we have come to expect.

[I]t was as late as Christmas 1954 when they first appeared in Regent Street with Oxford Street trailing behind not appearing until 1959. An excellent gallery of photos can be found here including Regent Street’s lights in 1955.

It would have been a welcome relief for Londoners who at Christmas 1940 had endured the fiercest bombing raids of the entire Blitz. There had been a cessation from Christmas Eve until the 27th December. But Sunday the 29th marked on of the most intense raids, so concentrated it became known as the Second Great Fire of London. It was during that firestorm that the iconic photograph of St. Paul’s dome towering above the carnage was taken.

The glimmer of seasonal joy the post-war Regent Street decorations brought to a drab war-torn London were short-lived, due to the recession and lack of the now too obvious sponsorship, and the West End went back to darkened December nights between 1967 and 1978.

We now refer to these twinkling orbs as fairy lights which comes from an event at the Savoy Theatre. Opening in 1881 the Savoy Theatre was the first building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. The next year a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Iolanthe was staged there. For the opening night the theatre’s owner Richard D’Oyly Carte dressed the principal fairies with electric star lights which the wore on the top of their heads.

This innovation aroused much excitement and the term ’fairy lights’ came into common usage for lights associated with Christmas.

Picture: Christmas Lights, Regent Street. Every year the lights in Regent Street have a different theme. Oast House Archive (CC BY-SA

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