The ghosts of Christmases past

13 12 2021

First turned-on 37 years ago today on 13th December 1984, Orchard Road’s annual Christmas Light-up is now in its 38th edition. Bringing cheer especially in the last two years with the uncertainty of the pandemic looming over us, the light-up has become a constant in Singapore bringing with it symbols of celebration that have actually little to do with Singapore or for that matter, with the celebration of Christmas. So, how did these symbols come to represent Christmas? When did the practice of lighting-up for Christmas even start? How did Christmas come to be commemorated with such zeal in in Christian minority Singapore? How did what is the only form of lighting-up we are now allowed along Singapore’s main shopping street come about? We may have to call up a few ghosts of Christmases past, to find the answer … 


Christmas is a religious holiday that has become a universal celebration. This is also the case in modern Singapore in which the year-end is now very much anticipated for its promise of cooler weather, as a time for holidays, and for the feeding and shopping frenzy that it seems to bring to Orchard Road –Singapore’s main shopping street. It is a time when the street is also transformed into a fairyland of Christmas lights and is filled with popular symbols that we now associate with the celebration of Christmas. It is not hard to miss a Christmas tree, that jolly and rather rotund figure whom we call Santa Claus or Father Christmas, and representations of wintery scenes and snow – all of which not only have nothing to do with balmy Singapore or for that matter, little to do with the Christmas message.  

Orchard Road during the Christmas Light-Up, 2016

The attempt on my part to tie all of these to the “Ghost of Christmas Past” – a character from Charles Dickens’ well-loved tale “A Christmas Carol” – is quite deliberate. Published in 1843, the tale served as the inspiration for how Christmas would be celebrated in Britain, and throughout the English speaking world. This ultimately, also set the expectations for what we in the modern world and in an urban setting, now consider to be Christmassy.

idPublished in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have given us the idea of that wintry Christmas.

Our rather unrealistic expectations in dreaming of that White Christmas, is one of the things that “A Christmas Carol” must surely have inspired. While such wintery scenes isn’t something we might immediately associate with London – the city in which Dickens’ tale is set, it was just what Dickens depicted in his tale drawing on his experience of Christmas in his formative years. It was a particularly cold decade into which Dickens was born into, during which the Thames actually froze over on more than one occasion, and this may just be why we now all dream of that white Christmas.  

A frost fair on the River Thames 1814.

The greeting “Merry Christmas” is another thing that “A Christmas Carol” is thought to have inspired. Used in abundance throughout the tale, the greeting would find its way to the very first Christmas cards, produced in the same year the book was published.

Christmas card designed by John Callcott Horsley, 1843.

One symbol that Dickens did not inspire was Santa Claus – that jolly and rather rotund representation of the Greek saint, Saint Nicholas, whom we often see getting stuck in the chimney. This version of how the saint is represented can be attributed to Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” – published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881 – was what influenced how generations of children see the ancient saint. Saint Nicholas wasn’t quite depicted as a merry figure prior to this, or even in even in Nast’s initial renderings of the saint going back to the 1863.

Thomas Nast, an American political cartoonist of German origins, whose sketch of “Merry Old Santa Claus” was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881

While Nast did provide the basis for how we see Santa Claus today, he was by no means the first to identify St Nicholas – Sinterklass to the Dutch – as Santa Claus in the English speaking world, nor the first to sketch him without his saintly robes. An 1823 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” by Clement Clarke Moore is often cited as the basis for the identification of Saint Nicholas as Santa Claus. There is however, an anonymous 8-verse poem that was published two years before Moore’s poem, in which “Santeclaus” was illustrated. This was perhaps the first publication in the English language to both identify and depict a modern “Santa”.

1821 depiction of “Santaclaus” accompanying an 8-verse poem.

For many homes, Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Christmas Tree, a tradition that has its roots in continental Europe, particularly in Germany. Like Santa and the idea of a White Christmas, this found its way into the English speaking world in the 1800s. The popularity of decorating fir trees in England took off with the publication of an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree in the Illustrated London News in December 1848. Prince Albert, who was of German origins, is said to have introduced the custom to the royal household. The custom seemed to have arrived to the shores of America, where there were also many settlers of German origin, a little earlier, as can seen in a picture published in 1845.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the royal family gathered around a decorated Christmas Tree (published in the Illustrated London News in December 1848).
Picture of a Christmas Tree published in Philadelphia in 1845.

Christmas trees were initially decorated with candles for illumination, a practice that was rather hazardous. An invention in 1879, one of humankind’s most important – the lightbulb – would lend itself to both greater safety and also to the street light-ups of the modern day. The lightbulb’s inventor, Thomas Edison is in fact also credited with inspiring electric Christmas lighting.  Edison’s business partner and friend, Edward Johnson, produced the first string of Christmas Lights in 1882, getting his idea from Edison’s display of lights outside his lab during Christmas two years earlier. It would however take a couple of decades, when electricity became widely available, that the invention would eventually achieve its potential. 

Thomas Edison inspired Edward Johnson’s String of Christmas Lights.

It would then take another couple of decades before lighting up for Christmas became an established practice. Initially, buildings were lit-up individually for Christmas – such as was the case of the Potomac Power Company’s building in 1920. However in 1923, America’s very first National Christmas tree was put up in by President Calvin Coolidge, which was lit by 3000 electric lights.  The decade would also see light-ups on streetwise scale being introduced, such as that of Christmas Tree Lane in Altadena, California in 1923 and by the 1930s, fairly elaborate Christmas street light-ups seem to be a norm in cities across the US.

Potomac Electric Power, Christmas greetings, 1920 / National Christmas Tree, 1923
(source: Library of Congress)
Christmas Tree Lane, Altadena, 1923 / Christmas Lights, Los Angeles, 1937
(sources Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection / Herman J Schultheis Collection)

The practice of illuminating buildings also made its way across the “pond” to Britain in the 1930s, with large stores such as Selfridges on Oxford Street, lighting up for Christmas since 1935. Britain would only see its first organised street Christmas light-up in the post-World War 2 era. This was introduced in 1954, in an attempt to liven up a dreary post-war London. Lighting up Regent Street, the annual light-up continues to this very day.

Selfridges, Oxford Street, London, 1935.
Regent Street, London, 1955 / Regent Street, London, 2018
(2018 photo: Jerome Lim, The Long and Winding Road)

In Singapore, Christmases were initially celebrated in a big way only by Christians and among the colonial elite who brought with them traditions that included Christmas Trees and Santas, the spirit of giving, and also the excesses that came with the season. From the outset, Christmas seemed as much a religious event as it was a celebration for the shops and on the evidence of advertisements for the sale of Christmas goods that go as far back as the mid 1800s, stores would be stocked up for the season. What many had on offer were toys and other gifts, foodstuff, and ornaments as is the case today. It would seem that it was also very much a celebration for the children.

Christmas in Singapore
Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 6 Dec 1906; The Straits Times, 26 Dec 1912; Daily Mercury, 27 Dec 1941

Homes, churches and certain offices, were initially the places that would be gaily decorated. Decoration -wise, stores that catered to the European clientele, would welcome Christmas in a big way only after the war. Decorations initially involved simple decorations, which on evidence of old photographs, became more elaborate as the years went by. The idea of fake snow, which we may think of as a more recent introduction, actually arrived here as far back as 1949. It was Robinsons in Raffles Place that provided the residents of Singapore with that very first “white Christmas”!

“Snow in Singapore”, Straits Times, 6 Dec 1949.
Christmas Decorations in Singapore in the 1960s and 1970s.

Singapore would have to wait until 1984 for its first Christmas street light-up. This came at the climax of the celebration of Singapore’s 25 years of Nation Building. The year was one when the economy was slowing. An energy-saving drive was in full swing. The light-up was however given the green light in an effort to boost Orchard Road’s flagging reputation as a tourism destination. With permission obtained to introduce the light-up, the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) looked to the light-ups in other Asian cities, particularly Hong Kong, for inspiration.

Christmas Light-up along Orchard road in the early days (Postcards via Roots.sg)

With the aim of promoting Singapore as a vibrant city, the board financed the project, which was the brainchild of Dr Wong Kwei Cheong, then Minister of State for Trade and Industry and chairman of STPB. Among the organisers of that first light up were the Singapore Hotel Association, Singapore Retail Merchants Association and National Association of Travel Agents, Singapore. Turned on by Dr Wong on 13 December 1984,  the light-up featured 100,000 light bulbs installed along a two kilometre stretch from Ming Court Hotel (now Orchard Rendezvous Hotel) to the Istana. The cost of lighting was kept to S$30 per hour and the display was said to have formed a “tunnel of light” through Orchard Road.

The Orchard Road Christmas Light-up in 2013

Encouraged by the success of the first light-up, which lasted a matter of just three weeks, STPB decided to continue with it on an annual basis. The success would also spawn similar light-ups for the major festivals: for Chinese New Year in Chinatown, for Ramadan/Hari Raya Puasa in Geylang Serai, and for Deepavali in Little India in 1985. 

Deepavali Light-up in Little India (2021)

Decorations for the light-ups were relatively simple initially. The introduction of the “Best Decorated Complex” – now the “Best Dressed Building” – would provide a spark for building owners such as Centrepoint – a regular winner – to come up with more elaborate decorations. One example is the Fairy Tale Castle, that Centrepoint was turned into in 1988. With the turn of the century attempts were also made to introduce different themes and colour schemes on an annual basis with each year’s light-up seemingly an improvement on the last. More recently, there have also been growing concerns about the choice of themes, with some feeling that they are a distraction and a deviation from the religious aspects of Christmas. An example of this was the Disney-themed ligh-up in 2018.

Fairy Tale Castle Centrepoint was turned into in 1988 (source: Roots.sg)

Since 2019, light-ups have also been scaled down, with the last two in 2020 and 2021 being put up during the time of the pandemic. As we moved towards the 40th year of the light-up in 2023, it would certainly be nice to see us move away from the tried and tested themes, and from the use of symbols that reflect a more tropical celebration, or perhaps one that will show Singapore as Singapore rather than the clone of any other big city anywhere in the rest of the world Singapore has seemed to become.


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