The more festive the better: how the high street becomes a special place at Christmas

At the risk of sounding incredibly basic, I’ll confess: after the Christmas music, the decor is my favourite part of the festive season. While I’m next to useless when it comes to putting up my own decorations, I’m drawn like a moth to the flame to any household, restaurant, market or shop that has put in the extra effort. The more fake snow, twinkling lights and jingling bells, the better.

In the car-centric Toronto suburb where I grew up, most of my youthful Christmas shopping was confined to the local mega-malls, which were unfailingly packed with overheated shoppers from Black Friday through to Boxing Day, so moving to the UK has been something of a revelation. No mall Santa, however rosy-cheeked, can really compete with the quaint holiday market in my boyfriend’s Lancashire hometown, or Kew Gardens’ festive trail of lights.

That’s why you’re likely to find me gawping at the garlands over Regent Street when they’re illuminated later this month. The first major high street in London to adopt the practice of street-long decoration, Regent Street has been doing its Christmas light display since 1954, after a reporter described London as “drab” during the holiday season. Oxford Street followed suit soon after, in 1959, and by the end of the 1960s, high streets across Britain were invested in the new tradition. In fact, many cities now make an event of the day the lights are switched on, complete with fair rides, pantos and celebrities of varying degrees of fame.

Christmas window shoppingTwo girlfriends having a Christmas window shopping

Christmas Tree ShoppingAnonymous series about Christmas tree shopping

Girl holding a cup of mulled wine

These spectacles aren’t just about dazzling onlookers. In Christmas and the British: A Modern History, historian Martin Johnes explains that light displays “gave 20th-century Christmas shopping a sense of occasion that differentiated it from the wider shopping experience that had become so embedded in everyday life”. More than just setting a mood, high street Christmas decorations make shopping less of a chore. If we have to endure the hordes each season, why not do it somewhere we don’t only tolerate, but enjoy?

It’s not only the busy high streets following this logic. The coloured lights strung by volunteers in the tiny Cornish fishing village of Mousehole, all funded by donations, attract some 30,000 tourists a year to the benefit of local businesses. And for the last three years, Broadway Road in the Cotswolds has hosted late-night shopping evenings in December, with local stores staying open until 8:30pm so shoppers can stock up on gifts and take in a mix of performances in a cheerful environment. A friend of mine who worked at a Broadway Road hair salon recalls the time her team dolled up Three Wise Women and had them ride down the street on camels.

Partial to a late-night browse myself, I usually venture to Mount Street in Mayfair to watch the lights get switched on, and spend the rest of the night wandering through the boutiques, sipping complimentary champagne and stuffing my face with mince pies to a medley of choristers and fashionable DJs. You can get the same buzz on many high streets in December, when independent shops stay open late and a holly wreath (or cup of mulled wine) is always close by.

Garlands over Regent Street, the first major street in London to adopt the practice in 1954.

These wholesome nights are a far cry from my parallel tradition of online shopping, but the latter just doesn’t have that personal touch I associate with “the most wonderful time of the year” – and I’m not alone in this. A Statista survey found that 49% of shoppers planned to do their Christmas shopping on the high street or at a shopping centre last year, versus 23% who preferred to shop online.

For all my talk about the high street at Christmas, I’m not one of those people who sorts out their list early. I pick up inspiration over the course of the year, and then do most of my shopping in the two weeks before the big day. That period, when the excitement around Christmas is reaching its peak, is when I feel most energised and most excited to take part in any Christmas-related activity, whether it’s ice-skating, eating Serrano ham at a friend’s flat or having one final night out before everyone goes home for the holidays. And in those instances, as with the shops, the more festive the environment, the better.

Show your high street some love
Why not seek out the personal touch with your Christmas shopping this year and join Visa in supporting local independent businesses across the country because #WhereYouShopMatters


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