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  • Maggie Spooner: Mixed signals


Maggie Spooner: Mixed signals

Christmas lights are undoubtedly pretty, but realistically, how much are these explosions of illumination costing the city? How do we justify it, or can we settle for less than having the world's longest illuminated boulevard?

Image for Maggie Spooner: Mixed signals
Photo by Maggie Spooner

Every year we have the same discussion:

Me, (aka Christmas Grinch) moaning about the extravagant cost of Christmas lighting up and down the Ku’Damm, versus the rest of the family who argue in favour of a) me getting a life, b) providing some small pleasure to those who can’t afford their own lights think about the less fortunate, Mum and c) attracting much needed Xmas customers to Berliner outposts of the beleaguered German retail industry.

As always, it’s my gut feeling versus the facts. Me, all dour-faced whilst our son has the stats at hand: some letter to an editor citing the 200+ people who called up the financiers (Wall AG) to thank them for brightening up their lives. I swear he reads the local paper just to gather ammunition for discussions like these.

Of course, no amount of internet research reveals the kilowatt hours consumed by Xmas lighting in Berlin. Instead, the investigative sourpuss is re-routed to the Wall AG website and protestations of civic pride and commitment. Which are, to be fair, rooted in campaigns dubious and laudable: Berliner Schloss versus support for tree-planting initiatives. So basically your average market economy swings and roundabouts the situation, vaguely underscored by research from an enterprising journalist who worked out some years ago that the consumption of electricity over the Xmas period is plus minus zero because people turn off lights in their households whilst they are out enjoying Xmas conviviality with friends or shopping in stores that are already illuminated.

So all things considered, I was more (or less) reconciled to appreciating the customary display of eclectic installations that accompanies locals and tourists heading east from Rathenauplatz (coming off the Autobahn) down Kurfürstendamm to Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf’s frontier at Nürnberger Strasse. There is something endearing about the clunky lighting intended to charm visitors past the banks and Bauhaus anonymity of upper Ku’Damm, the high-end stores around Olivaer Platz and on, into the more High Street brand section: the locomotive, the conical trees, the big bears all nicely set up to reflect a mixture of tradition (Berlin’s Borsigwerke were big on locomotives), city symbols, generic bits and bobs (nutcrackers, sleds and Santa) and your basically heathen Xmas trees. It’s proper mix ’n’ match City West and more fun, by any standards, than those eerily minimalist lights on the pruned back vegetation up and down Unter den Linden.

But wouldn’t you know it, just as I’ve settled back to enjoy the pretty picture (the sparkly trees are pretty) the old expansion ethic rears its ugly head. Cycling down Kurfürstendamm last week, what do we see? A veritable explosion of profligate illumination because this year, to celebrate 10 years of sponsorship, Wall AG has extended its light show up to Wittenbergplatz, making this the longest illuminated boulevard in the world. Costs will run to “somewhat more” than the “usual € 500,000”… Funding has yet to be fully worked out but payment in kind (more outdoor advertising opportunities) is part of the deal.

Really? If it’s not more, it’s less? This is not public money pumping through all those little lights and without Wall AG there probably wouldn’t be any prettiness at all, given the precarious state of Berlin’s public finances. But measure in all things. Because this is still expenditure sanctioned by a democratically elected body (Bezirksamt Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf). Is this the kind of signal we want to be sending from the capital of an environmentally-aware, book-balancing, austerity-advocating Germany?

The agreement between Wall AG and the SPD-dominated Charlottenburger-Wilmersdorfer municipality re: Xmas lighting is up for re-negotiation so watch this space: there’s only so much that a Christmas Grinch can stomach on top of all the Glühwein and this one was only dozing anyhow.