How Christmas lights made an Australian street famous

Residents of Avoca St in Sydney are serious about their Christmas lights Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption Residents of Avoca St in Sydney are serious about their Christmas lights

The advent of Christmas lighting can be traced - according to one story - to 1926 when Max Burgdorf, chief electrician of the City of Natchitoches in the US state of Louisiana, strung a series of 10-watt lightbulbs along Front Street as a Christmas gift for the townspeople.

The act helped inspire an annual tradition that now sees untold numbers of homes around the world and famous landmarks like Cardiff Castle and the Empire State Building lit up like Christmas trees in December.

In Australia, where Christmas falls on one of the hottest months of the year and only four days after the summer solstice - the day with the most daylight in the year - Christmas lights can look at odds with the environment.

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But in the iconic Sydney suburb of Bondi, the residents of one street carpet their homes with blinking lights of many colours in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Its name is Avoca Street, a bucolic snapshot of an old-school Australia where everyone knows each others' names and children play cricket on the road after school.

"I googled 'best places to see Christmas lights in Sydney' and this street came up," says Sandra Haynes, one of thousands of Sydneysiders who came to see the lights on Avoca Street this year. "It's fantastic to see the huge amount of trouble everyone has gone to. It shows great community spirit."

Clouded origins

With inflatable reindeer dancing on rooftops, sensor lights that play Jingle Bells and flashing neon signs, Christmas decorations are serious business on Avoca Street.

"One year someone knocked on the door and dropped a bunch of lights on the veranda and said 'why aren't you putting lights up? You have to if you want to live in this street'," says Sue Carol, a former resident who returns to Avoca Street every year to see the Christmas lights.

Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption Locals in the Bondi street try to outdo each other
Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption The tradition has lasted years, but few agree on how it started
Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption The street has become a destination for visitors wanting Christmas cheer

"How much do we spend? A lot. Hundreds and hundreds every year," says homeowner Marisa Lyons. "But it's worth it. The amount of people who walk past and tell us how much they love our lights - that to me is what it's all about."

Yet the origins of the Avoca Street Christmas light show are shrouded in mystery; there is no consensus about when or why the tradition started.

"The lights weren't here when I moved in in 2005, so I think it started a few years after that," Lyons says. "It just started organically over time and now everyone's doing it."

A little further down the road, resident Chris McMillan whose home is a riot of blue lights and flashing LEDs says the tradition began about 15 years ago "when a couple of us put up lights and everyone else followed".

But Roland Pisani, who's lived on Avoca Street for 20 years, says the tradition has "been going for six or seven or eight years". He adds: "I think it began as one of those 'keeping up with the Joneses' things where someone put up Christmas lights and then the person across the road thought they'd do it, too, and soon everyone started trying to outdo each other."

Block party

On Sunday 11 December, the residents of Avoca Street held their annual Christmas party.

Festivities began at 4pm when a waterslide jumping castle was inflated on the far end of the cul-de-sac for the kids. The adults congregated around a table loaded with sandwiches, salads and pasta and a self-service bar covered with wine and beer as pop music belted out from a large set of speakers arranged on a front lawn.

At 6pm, Santa Claus arrived on the back of a fire engine no less. Children crowded around the vehicle, going giddy with joy as Santa threw handfuls of sweets into the air and posed for selfies.

Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption Santa turns up on a fire engine for the street's annual party
Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption The popular event features food, rides and selfies
Image copyright Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Image caption The street's Wishing Tree was saved from removal in 2013

After Santa departed, homeowner Mark Smith stood on a chair and thanked everyone for attending the event.

"There are two announcements," he said. "First, the Wishing Tree, yes it's still here, and we have little tags so you can write your wishes," he says, pointing to a gigantic fig tree upon which residents pin their wishes - a concept inspired by the Burning Man festival in the US.

In 2013, the local council tried to remove the Wishing Tree after an arborist found it was unlikely to survive. But when the residents united to appeal the decision, council agreed to a six-month stay of execution - at the end of which the Wishing Tree was deemed to be on the mend.

"The second big thing," Smith said, "is that this year for the first time we've got a trophy for the best house. And the winner is Chris [McMillan] from number 43."

McMillan came forward to accept her trophy. "We're all winners. We've all done a fantastic job with the Christmas lights this year," she said. "But next year we have to be a little bit better."

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