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Northern Ireland people's Christmas lights displays raise thousands for charity

What inspires people to turn their homes into Christmas wonderlands? Kerry McKittrick finds out

In 1885 the very first set of Christmas lights went on display in West Yorkshire, powered by gas. Almost 140 years later Christmas lights are big business, with millions of sets sold in the UK alone.

In that time, festive illuminations have taken on a cultural significance and grandeur of their own - especially in America - featuring everything from elaborate scenarios of Santa Claus landing on the roof or climbing up the chimney to groups of elves and nativity scenes.

And advances in technology have made Christmas lights considerably easier to manage. LED lights, for example, are more durable and economical, as strings of them can be powered for hours on a single AA battery.

As festive illuminations have become more popular so, too, have charitable donations. Now, individual owners of houses and entire neighbourhoods putting on light shows might be more inclined to ask visitors to spare a few coins or notes for good causes, as a thank you for their efforts at creating an eye-catching display.

A small cul-de-sac in Burnham-On-Sea in Somerset raises thousands of pounds for good causes each year by creating a Yuletide blaze of light that includes more than 100,000 Christmas lights. This year a couple based in Featherstone have decorated their house for the last time, having raised more that £20,000 for cancer charities over the last five years.

And the tradition seems to be taking hold here as well, as we talk to three local people who have decorated their houses for good causes.

'It costs a fortune but I don't mind as all the cash raised is for the Hospice'

Sandra Hewitt (36) is a housewife and lives in Newtownabbey with her husband William and their sons William (15) and Marcus (9). She says:

Decorating the house is something I do every year. This year we've moved to a new area so we have a bigger garden and can use more lights. I started putting the lights up about four years ago but this is the first year I've done them to raise money for charity.

It was a spur of the moment decision - I was putting the lights up and a neighbour asked who I was raising money for and I told her straight away it was for the Children's Hospice. It's a local charity here in Newtownabbey and my sister's sister-in-law passed away there a couple of years ago from cancer so it's a cause that's very close to my family.

When I look at my own kids and think about what could happen to them, then I want to give as much support as I can to the families who use the Hospice.

I do all of the lights myself. I have blow-up Santas, fairy lights and flashing Santas. Each year I buy new ones in the sale to try to build up the collection.

They go up at the beginning of December and come down after the New Year and I only have the lights on while I'm here just to be on the safe side.

It can cost a fortune - the electricity alone can cost £400 but I don't care, I just want to raise as much money as I can. I pay for it all myself so the money donated will go straight to the Hospice."

'We have a massive collection of Christmas lights now as well as a snow machine'

Shirley Buckley (42) is a mental health worker who lives in Comber with her husband, Paul, and children Laura (5) and Lucas (4). She says:

Our Christmas lights show started off four years ago. We decided to put a few lights up just for our children to enjoy. A few more went up the year after that, then our neighbours suggested we do it for charity and it's escalated since then.

Now, the lights get switched on the last weekend of November. This year we had a launch with both the local PSNI and Fire Service community teams so kids could meet them and try on hats and get in their cars.

Santa arrived via a fire engine and there was a kids' disco in a marquee out the back with crisps and juice, with tea and coffee out the front for the grown-ups, and we even had fireworks.

The shops in Comber have been very supportive. Tesco helped us with tea and coffee and other shops have helped with donations after we put posters round the local schools advertising it.

This year we're donating to the cancer charity Clic Sargent.

Each year we find a small local charity, so we know the money will really go to helping people here instead of being caught up in administration. We chose the Make A Wish Foundation last year. We have a massive collection of lights now and buy new things each year. We didn't have a snow machine last year but we do now. We also have Merry Christmas signs, twinkling lights, laser lights that flash Christmas messages and a Wishing Well where people can make their donation. That's covered in fairy lights, too.

Last year we raised £570 and at the moment it's sitting just short of £300.

We try not to think of the costs but there are plenty. We start buying lights now as they're now on sale so we spend about £250 each year on those.

The electricity bill is a nightmare and runs into the hundreds. We've even contacted the company to ask for a discount, although they refused.

It could be worse, as the lights are all LED these days and don't take up that much power. I don't know how people did it years ago before they came along.

Neither my husband nor I are electricians but my brother is and I rope him in to check the wires and make sure everything is safe.

He's moved to a fire alarm company and they've lent us some fire extinguishers for the duration which was great as well.

The lights are only on when we're in the house and we try to change everything round so it looks different every year.

We get a lot of support and generosity and everyone brings their kids and grandkids to see the house."

'We've noticed a big rise in donations due to Twitter'

Gareth Watson (33) is a customer services manager for P&O Ferries and lives in Larne. He says:

We've been decorating the family home for about the last 10 years. We decided to start collecting money for the Larne Adult Centre. It was actually founded by my grandfather to provide a place for my uncle, who has Down's Syndrome, to go to when he reached adulthood.

When I was younger, we got an outdoor tree and put one set of lights on it. Each year after that we would add to it and people suggested that we should start collecting for charity. The house is in a very prominent position on the Coast Road, so lots of people stop and look at the lights and ask us who we were raising money for. As the adult centre is so close to our hearts we decided to choose that.

We have a huge collection of lights and they take over the entire attic of the house. We start putting them up around the last week of November and we take them down just before the New Year so we can get the house back to normal.

Last year, we raised around £2,000 and the year before it was about £1,500. We've noticed a big rise in the amount of money raised since social media started as people now take photos and share on Facebook and Twitter and their friends come along to see the house. Before 2005, we were averaging £500.

I put the lights up and then a friend of the family who is an electrician comes along to check that they're safe and everything is ok. We also need to make sure everything is tied down, as it can get very windy on the Coast Road.

We spend about £300 each year on new lights and the electricity bill can come to around £550 for this quarter. It could be cheaper but some of the lights I use are quite old or I've had them imported from America and they aren't LED so they take up more energy.

I go to shops like Cameron's in Ballymena or Hillside Nursery Centre and they will give us a bit of a discount sometimes. I don't often buy sale stock from shops because you often find that something will be broken when you turn it on to test it.

We even invite the kids in to see inside the house as we decorate there, too. We have trains round the Christmas tree and Santas hanging from the ceiling and so on.

My parents are getting on a bit and they're the ones who are at the house most of the time but we're going to keep it going as long as we can. The lights are on timers from 4pm to 10pm. The neighbours seem to enjoy the whole thing and bring their kids to come and see it all."

Tradition that evolved through the years

  • The world's largest Christmas light display this year was at a shopping centre in Australia. It featured 1.2 million LED lights and was created to raise money for a children's charity
  • Before electric and gas powered lights were invented families used candles to light their Christmas trees. Unsurprisingly this led to many house fires
  • LED Christmas Lights use 80% less energy than traditional Christmas lights. They are also designed to last for between 50,000 and 200,000 hours, while older-style Christmas lights are last only around 3,000 hours
  • Since 2007, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York has been lit with 30,000 energy efficient LEDs
  • The United States is one of the biggest markets for Christmas lights, spending around $6bn annually on them
  • Every year, more than 20 million pounds of discarded holiday lights are shipped to China for recycling

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