We Midwesterners are pushovers for a good holiday light even at the best of times — and these are not the best of times in America’s “flyover country”.
Several Midwestern states are near the top of the US pandemic league tables for things such as Covid-19 test positivity, hospitalisations and deaths. And the desire to escape those dreadful realities appears to have fuelled a fantasy boom in middle America: Christmas trees sold out early, holiday lights are in short supply, even giant inflatable Santas riding unicorns are out of stock.
Angela Campion-Russell did manage to nab a St Nick-sur-unicorn, and installed it on the family front lawn in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She thought the whole neighbourhood needed a mood boost.
“We’d never had outdoor decorations like that previously,” the Milwaukee lawyer told the Financial Times in a telephone interview. “It was a way to bring a little levity to a really heavy year.”
Ms Campion-Russell’s pep campaign in fact began months earlier when her family mounted an oversized inflatable unicorn shooting water out of its horn on the deck above their garage. “We did it as a joke for April Fool’s Day but it stayed up until Halloween.”
Christmas tree merchants say the holidays started early this year for many across the US. According to Doug Hundley of the National Christmas Tree Association, the trade association for the real Christmas tree industry: “We had people coming to Christmas tree farms before Thanksgiving, saying, ‘we know it’s too early but we really need something to get happy about’.”
Mac Harman of Balsam Hill, which sells high-end artificial trees, says: “Everything shifted forward this year, our Christmas in July sales were up 50 per cent year on year, and it never slowed down.” He still had stock in mid-December but many retail chains were sold out. “If you need a Christmas tree at this point your best bet is to creep into your neighbour’s yard with an axe,” he says.
Dana Busiel, office manager of American Holiday Lights outside Chicago, which charges a minimum $1,250 to mount exterior lights, says: “We raised prices and minimums this year and it seemed like people didn’t really care. Our new customers have been through the roof and a lot of our old customers have added to their display.”
For those who need more than a few strings of fairy lights to cheer them up, the Chicago area is also experiencing an epidemic of no-contact, drive-through displays of holiday lights synced with music: think seven swans a swimming and six geese a laying, in time with Bing Crosby crooning from the car radio on a dedicated frequency. Botanical gardens, arboretums, local amusement parks — all have their shows, including one in the car park of a local shopping mall hit hard by coronavirus fears.
Some displays were sold out by October, and at another we queued for nearly an hour though we held timed-entry tickets. My coronavirus-exiled college student kids and I even helped snarl up traffic in the narrow residential streets around two private homes north of Chicago which mount their own free sound-and-light shows in their yards. So far, we’ve hit seven shows, at $25 to $40 a car each time.
“Lights are almost addictive, we keep going back to them for reassurance that we won’t always be in a bad time. We turn to the one thing that brought us great comfort and joy in the past, and that is holiday lights,” says Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at Le Moyne University in Syracuse, New York.
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Nielsen, the consumer research firm, says it’s all part of a “homebody reset” on the part of American consumers: we are all trying to nest our way out of this weirdest of all holidays. The light pandemic won’t do much for a recent green consumer trend though: many big light shows run on petrol generators.
Buying feel-good fairy lights is probably a safer bet than chocolate, caviar or foie gras. But just be sure to zip-tie those Christmas lights to the house. Ms Campion-Russell’s unicorn-riding St-Nick disappeared in early December. Lest that dent your holiday spirit, she reports that a “very kind neighbour” just gave her three new inflatables, a penguin, a snowman, and a dragon. “The yard will be looking magical again very soon!”
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