The Spinoff Reviews New Zealand #51: the Christmas lights of West Auckland

We review the entire country and culture of New Zealand, one thing at a time. Today, José Barbosa and photographer Joel Thomas plunge into suburbia to bear witness to the majesty of west Auckland’s Christmas displays.

It’s the time of year when Auckland’s bail the family up into their Swifts or Pathfinders and go to see the lights at Franklin Road, Ponsonby. Aucklanders have been doing this for 25 years; it’s a tradition. But we used to feed gin to babies and we stopped doing that, so why does anyone keep going to Franklin Road, because I’m here to tell you that the whole thing fucking sucks.

A Franklin Road visitor has to contend with traffic, finding a park, boring, interchangeable light displays (stringing up some fairy lights is not a ‘Christmas display’) and miserable stories of people being bullied into making a display. Plus there’s always the risk of bumping into Hamish Keith.

What’s even more galling and personally confusing is that a mere 15-20 kilometres to the west are displays of Christmas lights and cheer that every year blow anything the residents of Franklin Road can come up with right out of the water. They’re not only impressive in terms of pure wattage; in most cases they represent several decades of junk shop hunting and a level of electrical engineering not usually seen outside the national grid.

Armed with listings found in the super up-to-date lightupchristmas.co.nz and an evening to kill, a family can witness the true spirit of Christmas hidden away in the nooks of west Auckland. Here then are three of the best displays to be found, in my opinion, anywhere in the country.

15 Lagoon Way, West Harbour

Honestly, even if we just listed this address and left it at that, it would be enough. The glow from this display is so big you’d be forgiven for thinking someone’s torn a hole in the fabric of time and space. Walking through the front gates is like slowly encasing your head in that big spaceship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are so many lights and figures and things to look at all blinking and pulsating in the night: two inflatable Santas oscillate on a seesaw, there’s a UFO hanging from a tree made from LED rope lights, in the garage is a train set diorama involving a huge snow castle, and neighborhood kids are playing with a plasma ball inset in a wooden plinth.

Photo by Joel Thomas

The family to whom this LED cornucopia belongs chill near the entrance, sitting on white plastic lawn chairs. They welcome everyone who walks through the gates and happily chat with whoever wants to. More than anything it’s a social occasion. And it’s been a long time in the planning. The mastermind of the display tells me it takes two months to put everything up. He seems faintly disappointed with this year’s efforts. Apparently the pre-Christmas weather knocked off some bits and pieces. “We’re operating at about 70 percent,” he says as I squint into the light. If this is a sub-optimal offering, then 100 percent must involve setting off a supernova on the porch.

188 Upper Harbour Drive, Greenhithe

#fakesnow Photo by Joel Thomas

The couple at this otherwise unassuming house in Greenhithe have been hitting the Christmas lights buzz for thirty years. The driveway rolls down to their garage where a snow machine spurts out fake snow to carols. A seven metre lighted tree overlooks visiting kids scribbling on the concrete with provided chalk. The front garden houses an array of lighted Christmas figures and you have to duck your head to avoid colliding with an almost life size Santa hanging by his hands from a tree. An older man and woman appear to be very taken with him. “Can you do video?!” the woman asks desperately. “I bloody well hope so!” responds the man, brandishing his phone like a melting ice cream cone.

Photo by Joel Thomas

But inside is the real action. A 16 years in the making collection of Santas and Christmas angels greets you as you pad around the owners’ Lockwood-esque lounge. There’s a delightful diorama which includes a moving ice skating rink which cost $80 and had to be imported from overseas. It’s calm and beautiful and it feels good to be welcomed into someone’s home to share their Christmas.

51 Kamara Rd, Glen Eden

Hi Santa, are you all tied up? lol. Photo by Joel Thomas

If Lagoon Way was a “throw in the kitchen sink” aesthetic ride and Upper Harbour Drive was an ordered and calm experience, then this display is somewhere in the middle. It’s got that intense bombastic ‘more is better approach’, but behind it all you can sense there’s a well-thought out plan. In the front garden the trees are caked in lights, it’s magical. There’s a Santa figure in one nook tied to a chair with red fairy lights, and a tiny nativity scene inside a dome. The effect is like you’re in space, walking through the Milky Way, but you’re not. You’re in Glen Eden.

Inside you’re welcomed by walls and walls of Christmas paraphernalia. Every single kind of kooky knick knack or bauble that’s ever been rushed out for Christmas is there. I feel like I could run full speed at a wall and I’d just sink into it. Amazingly it only took a day to set up. Outside was the real slog, two months to string up lights upon lights upon lights.

Barry and Linda: heroes. Photo by Joel Thomas.

Barry and Linda say they do it for the community, for the kids in the neighbourhood so they have something amazing to experience at Christmas. As we say our goodbyes, Barry closes up the front gate. He insists we come back at 8:30pm on the 23rd because Santa will be visiting. And this is why I’m less and less likely to even think about Franklin Road around Christmas. I’ve never been invited into a house on Franklin Road and been gobsmacked by a winter diorama; it’s a gallery of ghosts, empty carapaces lining the cold dead streets. But out west you move through people’s lives and become part of their Christmas too.

Verdict: West is best.

Good or Bad: So good. Too good for this world, maybe.

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