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The 'Light' before Christmas

Ahead of the Christmas Light Switch On this Thursday, Jodie Sheehan muses: what is it exactly that makes York so quintessentially Christmassy?

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Image: Visit York

Over the coming weeks, York's city centre will be transformed into a winter wonderland. Lights and decoration will adorn the city and stalls will begin to spring up in the heart of town - laden with arts and crafts, jewellery, locally made wines and cheeses, roasted chestnuts and fresh fudge. Known as St. Nicolas' Fair, these stalls provide an unrivalled sense of Christmas spirit, with their weekend and late night shopping experiences allowing shoppers to stay within the festivities late into the evening. Adorning the market stalls, tree branches and shop windows will be fifteen kilometres worth of festive lights; scattered around the city there will also be twenty-five real Christmas trees.

This Thursday evening, locals and tourists alike will flock to the city centre to watch the Christmas Light Switch On, which marks the beginning of York's Christmas Festival. This year will be the city's biggest ever light display; featuring not only 160,000 LED bulbs, but also the debut illumination of Lendal and Ouse bridges, bestowing shimmering reflections onto the rivers for the first time. Invited to initiate the light switch on are pantomime stars Berwick Kaler and Martin Barass, BBC Radio York and BBC Look North Presenter, Clare Frisby, Councillor Barbara Boyce, and the Lord Mayor of York. In a matter of seconds, the city centre will be drenched in a radiant winter glow - the ultimate signal that the Christmas countdown has begun.
Even with increases in online sales, it does not appear that the traditional appeal of physical Christmas shopping has died down

This year, the Christmas lights will also extend to the Museum Gardens, with a brand new attraction to be found there after dark. Visitors will have the ability to wander through the gardens, and immerse themselves in the sights and sounds of Christmas with vibrant tree canopies and magical soundtracks. Maria Farrugia, General Manager of Lunchbox Events commented,

"We have always wanted to work inside York Museum Gardens and are truly privileged to be given the chance to showcase this new event in such a wonderful setting. We have invested over £500,000 on lights, installations and activations and hope everyone who visits will enjoy it."

While the Museum Garden experience is brand new, the Christmas Markets have been top tourist attractions for several years now; even with the development of technology and increases in online sales, it does not appear that the traditional appeal of physical Christmas shopping has died down. The Markets remain as popular as ever, playing a huge role in contributing to the 6.9 million tourists visiting York each year.

But what is it about the Markets that make them so quintessentially Christmassy? There is clearly something about Christmas Market shopping that taps into our intrinsic love of the magic of Christmas. Year after year, the Christmas Markets entice us out of our homes, away from our laptops, and into the welcoming arms of the city centre. Perhaps part of the attraction is the fact that they are ideal for all ages and walks of life - being at once an ideal family activity, an evening of fun for young people and students, and a romantic atmosphere for couples.

Image: Visit York

Of course, children delight in the magic, the mystery and the excitement of Christmas, but these markets also enable adults to feel the communal warmth and goodwill that this time of year embodies. The very act of attending the markets allows many of us to enjoy time with our loved ones, while the act of buying and giving gifts epitomises the goodwill, gratitude and love that we associate with Christmas.

While for many of us, these values are what we think of when we speak of Christmas, it is worth reflecting on the original meaning: obviously, it is a Christian celebration of the birth of the Son of God. But today, with many non-religious people also celebrating the holiday, it might come be worth questioning: has Christmas has lost its traditional (and largely religious) meaning for a lot of people?
The stunning architecture combined with cobbled paths, quaint pubs and shops, and charming streets like the Shambles really lend themselves to Christmas decor

Certainly, on a commercial scale we see very few religious references in the representations of Christmas. Rather, the images we are met with are of presents, traditional food, decoration and festive characters like snowmen and Santa Claus. With the freedoms we can enjoy today, there is not much pressure for organisations to incorporate religious aspects into Christmas activities, the Christmas Markets included. It is hard to deny that, in the 21st century, Christmas has evolved and largely changed its meaning. For many people, it is now about the community spirit that is embodied by the Christmas Markets and other festivities provided by cities.

But why do so many people flock to York in particular, above other cities? Sally Greenaway, Head of Visit York, described the city as providing "the best Christmas Festival in the country." Perhaps the answer lies in the unique ambience of York. The stunning architecture combined with cobbled paths, quaint pubs and shops, and charming streets like the Shambles really lend themselves to Christmas decor - creating an old-fashioned atmosphere that reinforces the timeless nature of Christmas.

With the beginning of the festivities only days away, it is hard not to feel a little excited. This year, every aspect of the city's unique and historic landscape will be utilised to its maximum potential, and has been described as a "must see for residents and visitors alike" by Andrew Lowson, Director at York BID. Above all, York at Christmas time is certainly something to behold, and we cannot deny how well it captures the warm Christmas spirit we all know and love.

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