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What really goes on behind the scenes at ‘The Boulevard Christmas Lights’

The Christmas warehouse
Domain goes shopping for some Xmas treats.

“And we’ll get to do the Christmas lights!” Those were the magic words my parents used to placate a teary, 12-year-old me back in 1994 when they announced we’d be leaving our Port Melbourne house for the wilds of Ivanhoe.

It was a masterstroke, because back in those days, “The Boulevard Christmas Lights” were heaven on earth to a Christmas-crazy kid like me. I was the tween who borrowed Santa Claus: The Movie from Video Flash instead of watching 90210 (my social life suffered) and was always in charge of decorating the Christmas tree, preferably as early in December as possible.

Understandably, then, the promise of not only seeing the Christmas Lights every year but actually living in them was tantamount to winning the lottery.

Every year the entire suburb would be gripped by the bloodsport of trying to outdo one's neighboursEvery year the entire suburb would be gripped by the bloodsport of trying to outdo one’s neighbours

Ivanhoe wasn’t the only suburb in Melbourne to put on a Christmas display, but it had history (starting back in the 1950s) and the natural, meandering curves of The Boulevard gave it a sense of seasonal pilgrimage that the other Christmas-lit cul de sacs and streets just couldn’t compete with. Given my rep as the family’s Christmas expert (and aspiring visual merchandiser), I was immediately installed as #180’s official Christmas Lights artistic director.

The reality of living amid the Lights was something else: bumper-to-bumper traffic meant that, if we wanted to go out (or have friends over) on a lights night, we’d have to leave or welcome guests at about 4pm, and not return until midnight. It also won’t surprise you to hear that living on The Boulevard for a decade was a little like stepping behind the Wizard Of Oz’s fabled curtain: suddenly the secrets and stoushes of the Christmas lights were laid bare before me.

There was the year one family refused to engage beyond a rather bleak “JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON” hand-painted billboard above the back verandah. The time a neighbour’s animated Santa Claus started jerking around like it was in a breakdancing contest, terrifying young onlookers. The year a kid accidentally cracked open a glow-stick and had to come in and use our bathroom to flush out his glowing eyeballs.

And, every year, the entire suburb would be gripped by the bloodsport of trying to outdo one’s neighbours with the display that would be dubbed “the best one” by passing revellers. 

Pic shows the Christmas decoration at the Boulevard in Ivanhoe. 18 December 2007.  The Age NEWS. Pic by EDDIE JIM/ejz071218.003.010 DIGICAM NEWS

The reality of living amid the Lights was something else. Photo: Eddie Jim

This was a considerable challenge, given that for decades the split-level garden on the corner overlooking Hardy Terrace had gone so all-out it made the Myer Christmas Windows look like a minimalist homewares store. (Legend had it someone in the family had decreed, in their will, that the majesty of that display was to be maintained in perpetuity.) Some nights they would even have an honest-to-god real, human Santa Claus sitting in a throne on the lawn greeting local children with a bag full of boiled lollies.

There were other notables: one garden with a family of light-up penguins, one share house with a brace of disco lights presumably repurposed from the last house party, a cream-brick terrace with an adorable knitted nativity inside an emptied out fishtank, and one with a very “Californian mid-century” Christmas scene that looked like a Good Housekeeping photo shoot. 

But faced with the largesse of that legendary split-level garden, I decided instead to go small, and create displays that were tailor-made for the smaller revellers, recalling the small-scale magic of the Myer Windows I remembered from my childhood: lots of glitter and a display with lots of hidden treasures to look for.

The Age 15 December 2011. Melbourne Christmas Lights. The Boulevard, Ivanhoe. Pic by Rebecca Hallas

‘The Boulevard Christmas Lights’ were heaven on earth to a Christmas-crazy kid like me. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

One year, we constructed a fairy garden, with light up toadstools and Barbie (and Sindy) fairies suspended on fishing wire; another, I made “Willy Wonka’s Christmas Chocolate Factory”, with Oompah Loompahs and a chocolate river made of brown crushed velvet, covered in brown cellophane, which I was amazed to discover was a colour of cellophane that exists.

(Every Bastow family Christmas Lights offering also featured at least 10 metric tonnes of glitter and spray snow, in fact, I’m fairly certain that were I to return to the front yard of our old house, I’d find the gnarled old Prunus plum’s trunk was still dotted with glitter.)

Inevitably, the crowds would flock instead to the giant, million-watt displays down the road, and after a few years trying to bring intimacy back to the Christmas Lights, I was one “let’s go look at that big one!” away from giving up.

The Age 15 December 2011. Melbourne Christmas Lights. The Boulevard, Ivanhoe. Pic by Rebecca Hallas

While others went big, I went small created displays tailor-made for the smaller revellers. Photo: Rebecca Hallas

That all changed when, one morning, I fished a postcard out of the snail-infested letterbox. The short message, with no sender’s details, congratulated us on the “tiny details” of our display and said that the children enjoyed looking for the fairies much more than they did the big, dazzling displays up the road.

You could say it was a Christmas (Lights) miracle.