It starts with the legs - four huge blocks big enough to support what comes next, the obese, oversize frame of Manchester’s own Mr Blobby. Early in November, Santa’s lifted into pride of place on the Town Hall, from where he can survey the town square in all its glory, his twinkling boxes of golden presents scattered across nearby lampposts.
His vantage point is dark until his welcome party, the customary Christmas lights switch on, when Santa reminds the city of his existence in a display of 100,000 glowing lights. This year, he was announced by X Factor winner Alexandra Burke plus, appropriately for such an over-the-top caricature, local pantomime stars.
Sitting atop a 32 foot structure, Santa wishes those below a ‘Merry Christmas Manchester’. Subtle it isn’t; at ten metres tall, eight metres wide and six metres deep, his scale is huge. Something so cartoonish is an absurd sight on Alfred Waterhouse's stately neo-gothic Town Hall. Santa completely overshadows other seasonal reminders such as the pair of discreet poppies that flank him on the town hall around Remembrance Day. They can’t compete; though they too are oversized, they don’t have his sheer bulk.Santa’s so fat he doesn’t even have legs, just bloated, blobby feet, and seems to prompt mixed reactions from shoppers at the Christmas markets below. A 59 year old from Swinton said: “I would prefer something more traditional. I preferred the old one in the tower, but it kept coming down. Maybe it will look better in the evening when it’s lit up.” His wife, though, said: “I like it. It’s only there for a couple of weeks anyway - it’s not like it’s permanent!”
A businessman visitng from the US said: “Maybe it’s there to draw people here, but I wish it was on a slightly more human scale! The colours and pretty and the lights are nice, but I didn’t notice it until you pointed it out!” On the other hand, 21 year old James said: “It’s a good piece of culture!” and a woman from Leyland said: “It’s lovely. I’m a fan of Christmas and all the things that go with it.”
When he was first unveiled (a similarly grotesque inflatable Santa was finally laid to rest in 2006 after succumbing to a growing shabbiness and propensity to puncture), Councillor Pat Karney proudly proclaimed: “'It is very hi-tech and very 21st Century'. It will put Las Vegas in the shade.” It’s as if the council has done a tour of those notorious houses which compete with rooftop displays every year, and decided to go one better with what they have on their roof.
Of course, it’s not just Albert Square that gets the Christmas lights treatment. The pollution of Oxford Road is offset briefly by rows of green firs. Deansgate is a wonderland of simple but wintry scenes. I have to admit, though, that my favourite is the unconventional Christmas tree in Piccadilly Gardens.
Eschewing a traditional tree (that honour is reserved for Albert Square, which hosts the fir tree that’s donated by the people of Stavanger, Norway every year), instead the shape of a tree is loosely represented in a 32 foot tower of illuminated silver balls. A real tree could look tawdry and forlorn rattling around in that empty concrete space (a conventional tree would have to be massive to make any impact on the open space of the gardens, and could too easily become tacky if overloaded with too many decorations or shabby if vandalised), but there’s something really simple yet effective about the sphere tree that I love. When illuminated at night, its fragile, delicate cages cast a monochrome white glow that offsets the coldness of Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion. The pile of wire baubles somehow makes the sparse space, which is dominated by Ando’s minimalist concrete wall, more welcoming. What could be stark and lost amongst the rich architecture of Albert Square somehow fits in Piccadilly Gardens.
Piccadilly Gardens is no stranger to unusual takes on trees. The ball tree has replaced a cone tree that was previously installed at Christmas time, and at the other end of Piccadilly Gardens, there’s already another unconventional tree, the 11foot high steel Tree of Remembrance that was erected in 2005 to remember the victims of bombing in Manchester during the second world war. These two opposing visions of trees somehow make you appreciate the few bare trees growing around the area even more.
The ball-tree is a beacon, visible from the northern quarter, guiding you down the narrow streets late at night towards Piccadilly Gardens and the prospect of home. Its only potential downfall is Manchester’s unpredictable weather, occasionally falling victim to high winds.
However you feel about Christmas, the Christmas lights add a sheen to the city that could make even the most hardened anti-Christmas cynic believe in magic - or at least spread a little glow for a small period of time. It’s nice to see a bit more colour on the city streets (imagine if the fairy lights cheering up Piccadilly Gardens were made permanent, like those in the trees outside Piccadilly Station or around Sackville Street Gardens) even if it’s just for a little while.