I first spotted this example of in-your-face seasonal jollity on 12 November. It may have been in place for some time, but it’s still the only example I’ve seen this year. I took this pic this evening and spoke to a couple of passers-by: did they like it? Oh yes of course.
There’s a street near where I live that seems to have an annual competition between residents to out-kitsch each other, or perhaps it’s all part of one big party. And special thanks to Jan Steyaert for pointing out this delicious example from CNN of what can happen – a Californian couple seem to have decorated their front garden with sufficient enthusiasm to attract a lot of attention: last year “more than 1,500 cars prowled the Aertses' cul-de-sac in this upscale San Jose suburb each night.” A neighbour raised objections, presumably because living in a traffic jam did not match her vision of the neighbourhood she bought into.
California is different, but in England taste can certainly be seen in terms of social class. The wealthy buy into areas where outdoor electric kitsch is highly improbable, and perhaps conflicts of taste can be diffused (defused?) if you have plenty of space around you. Ironically it’s in the US, with all its rhetoric about liberty, that people get worked up about being able to see other people’s laundry (see Project Laundry List to see how serious this can be), and of course homeowner associations are full of all sorts of self-imposed prescriptions about the appearance of people’s houses (see Suzanne Keller’s Community, Princeton UP, 2003, for plenty of detail on this). As the literature on gated communities suggests, this doesn't always have the intended positive impact on broader civil relations.
Well I think the Santa lights phenomenon is fascinating because it’s where we find the border of private behaviour and public acceptability. How public or private is the front of my house? If I were to decorate the exterior (temporarily or permanently) in a way that raised objections among my neighbours, on what basis does our society deal with that issue? It’s cultural: so how subjective is culture? We think of our homes as bastions of individual choice, but that’s questionable and being eroded anyway, partly by the technologies of course, which show how permeable they really are. The CEO of Sun Microsystems provocatively told us that we have zero privacy anyway – “get over it.” The notion of the private home is barely 350 years old, as I understand it, why would we regard it as an incontestable model? Is individual privacy and therefore private choice being redefined, and if so what are the implications for neighbourhoods?
I noted recently the potential of government regulation to get up the path and inside the front door, and today we have more news of how they’re doing it: in January a new law will require ‘significant’ electrical work to be carried out by a qualified and registered electrician. Maybe that’s the precedent that lets in the Decoration Inspectors. 'No I'm sorry sir, only one Santa on a north-facing wall...'