Friday, December 9, 2011

Christmas decorations in Paris

Compared to what one sees in much of the United States, Christmas decorations in Paris are pretty lame.

I can think of several possible reasons for this. First, France isn't nearly as religious as the United States. Less than ten percent of French people attend religious services regularly, compared to about half the American population. The French also fret endlessly about what other people will think, and are thus much less likely to do anything extreme, such as heavily decorating a home or storefront or street. There's also probably some concern about political correctness, with the French being afraid of offending the substantial Muslim minority (although they never seemed to worry about offending the Jewish minority). Whatever the reasons, decorations in Paris are very simple and sparse compared to the U.S.

Another odd thing about decorations in France is that they aren't very colorful. Mostly you just see white lights, occasionally mixed with some blue lights or red lights (but not both). Green lights are scarce, and lights of all different colors, as you might readily find in the United States, are nowhere to be seen in Paris. Streets are not decorated unless local merchants get together and pay for it, so one street might have nothing while another might be moderately decorated. Even the decorations on the Champs are paid for by local merchants on the avenue.

Speaking of the Champs, they changed the “decorations” this year, and the new decorations are pathetic. The previous decorations included tens of thousands of tiny white LED lights and “dripping icicle” light chasers on all the trees. This year consists of a few Hula Hoops with lights on them, mounted on butt-ugly stands beneath most of the trees. The hoops change color from time to time, but most of the time they are so unremarkable that you might miss them while looking up the avenue. Somebody definitely went the low-cost route this year. And supposedly we are stuck with this bargain-basement lighting for the next four years. Public opinion of the new lights has been overwhelmingly negative.

I've put up a video of the lights on the Champs, such as they are, so you can judge for yourself. I almost didn't bother, since they are so ugly, but the need to communicate and document overrode my aesthetic sense.

And speaking of videos, I've also put up two other Christmas videos. One shows the much more substantial decorations around the large department stores in Paris, the other shows the Christmas market on the Champs-Élysées itself.

The Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores decorate far more than anyone else in the city. They've recycled decorations from year to year for several years now, but they are still pretty. As with other Christmas decorations in Paris, the department stores have not gone for much color in their decorations, but the designs are nice. In the past, they changed decorations every year, but I guess times are hard now.

The department stores also traditionally decorate their windows with animated displays for children. Those are a bit on the decline, too, but there's still a fair number of windows with displays for kids. The displays are often very complicated, animated by motors and cams above the ceiling that move objects in the display using fine plastic fishing line. It is typically very well executed and fun to watch. The non-kids windows this year feature some over-the-top fashion displays, essentially elaborate advertisements, some of which would spook me if I were a kid.

My third video concerns the Christmas market on the Champs, which is a fairly recent phenomenon. It was only started a few years ago. It's probably the largest Christmas market in the city. Like all such markets, it concentrates on food (especially mulled wine, because French people are strongly attracted to drugs like ethanol). The stalls also sell the kind of semi-worthless gifts that you tend to buy for people at Christmas when you feel obligated to give them something but not concerned enough to really pick a good present. Things like bars of home-made soap, strange-looking carved wooden objects, scarves and gloves, magic cleaning products, artificial flower arrangements, and so on. The merchandise at Christmas markets in Paris (and perhaps elsewhere) eerily resembles what one finds at similar markets in the United States. I find myself wondering where these merchants go during the rest of the year. Who buys home-made soap—and where—in June or July, for example?

This Christmas market, like all such markets, also features a lot of things that have nothing to do with Christmas, such as a “Father Christmas Roller-Coaster” that is totally unrelated to Christmas except for the sign that says “Father Christmas Roller-Coaster.” This coaster for kids actually looks like it was designed to resemble a caterpillar, but I suppose that children can be counted upon to readily hallucinate that the caterpillar has morphed into Santa Claus thanks to the all-important sign (if they are able to read it).

There's also a tiny ice rink that appears to use synthetic ice, which I thought rather interesting. And there's some sort of indoor attraction with “more than 200 animatronic animals” according to the signs outside. It looks like mostly dinosaurs from the outside, and here again, it's hard to see the connection to Christmas. I don't recall Santa having his sleigh pulled by velociraptors, but who knows?

There's also a gigantic eyesore on the place de la Concorde, a huge ferris wheel that is extremely popular with tourists even though it ruins the view for everyone along the axis of the Champs-Élysées. The owner of that wheel must rub his hands with glee each Christmas season at the thought of all the money it's going to make. I don't know how he managed to wrangle an authorization to put it up each year, and perhaps it's best that I don't know the details.

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