Dublin at Christmas is a city of lights. Nearly every shop, restaurant, church, park, building, and home evokes the imagery of the holiday season with lively décor. Capturing the spirit of Christmas for an entire city, however, goes beyond light strings and tinsel. Behind the lush trees and nostalgic music is a marketing machine that has ties to a surprising variety of local companies and institutions.
It may be no secret that Christmas has been having a love affair with capitalism for some time now. At the epicenter of Dublin’s Christmas craze is DublinTown. Founded in 2007 out of the Business Improvement District Scheme (or BID scheme) it aims to promote Dublin’s city center. This includes everything from increasing footfall to improving the quality of life for residents and workers in the city center. Dublin at Christmas is their most important yearly project and preparations for it begin in February of each year.
Fantasy Lights are the second most important company for Dublin’s holiday needs. They source and install almost every lighting display in the city center. Their work can be seen around the country as well. Over 20 years ago, they inherited the monopoly on specialized lighting in Ireland from Breens Electrical and have watched the demand steadily increase.
The other players in the Christmas business in Ireland include Coillte (National Forestry Organization), Brown Thomas, city center stall holders, and the entire bar/restaurant industry. They all contribute to the season, but at what cost? Many of those I spoke to said that Christmas makes people happy. But when the lights get switched off in January, how much of that happiness will last? With a city in the midst of a fast spreading housing crisis, and a growing homeless population, is our time and energy being spent wisely during the ‘season of giving’?
Creating the Christmas feel
Dublin makes no apologies over its love of Christmas. It is so encompassing that you would never think that any non-Christians even lived on the island. While I come from the perspective of the secular “Happy Holidays” that America embraces, I am still surprised at how little effort there is to incorporate any other holiday celebrations. The Christmas Village, pictured below, underwent a re-branding this year with the launch of the “I BELIEVE” campaign. The very wording itself implies the need for a faith that only Santa and mulled wine can evoke.
Also riding on the wave of the magical are the window displays at Brown Thomas department store. Every year, the unveiling is one of the most highly anticipated events in the city. Creative director of Brown Thomas, John Redmond, travels to the Christmas World Trade Show in Frankfurt every January to prepare for the coming year. “Every year, we hope to really wow people,” said Redmond. The theme for this year is “The Store of Wonders” and the designers tried to go back to the simple pleasure of a great story. They worked with Irish children’s author Ciara Molloy Tan to write a story that is told across each of the Christmas windows.
Local politicians make lots of appearances during the weeks leading up to Christmas. Some visit local schools for Christmas plays, others join the publicity train that DublinTown drives.
The Lord Mayor of Dublin (Criona Ni Dhalaigh) is pictured below inside of a snow globe on O’Connell Street with the CEO of Dublin Town, Richard Guiney, and Santa.
Below is some data on the work that goes into the lights, and how the five main streets in the city center compare to each other.
Money, and Donations, and “Charity”
The exact spend figures by the city for the season are, unsurprisingly, kept close to the chest of those in charge. The research estimates for previous years have put the lights budget at over 600,000 Euro.
Where this money comes from is an interesting trail. Due to their being classified as a BID company, DublinTown receives funding from local businesses in the form of an extra tax on their yearly income. According to a previous study done by the Irish Times, “payment comes as a percentage of commercial rates: 5.27 per cent in the case of Dublin city, which is collected by the rates office and distributed to the Bid company. Three have been established in Ireland so far (including Dún Laoghaire and Dundalk).” DublinTown recorded income just over 3 million Euro last year, with 450,000 coming from sponsorship/funding, and the rest from their levies. Guiney, the CEO, was on a salary of 110,000 Euro.
I interviewed Clyde Carroll, the head of marketing for DublinTown. He believes that the work of the company is vital to improving the morale of the city all year long. It is interesting to note his claim that if the retail industry weren’t properly supported at Christmas, it might contribute to homelessness.
When I asked Carroll how the electricity that powers the lights was funded, he told me that the individual businesses, connected to the lights, share the burden. However, when I met with Gabriel Bryne from Fantasy Lights, he told me that DublinTown write ESB the cheque for the electricity usage (calculated by meters installed on each street). I can assume that funding for this payment comes from the levy imposed on the businesses, which removes the discretional aspect.
Below is a tour of the Christmas showroom at Fantasy Lights in Walkinstown, Dublin 12.
The final big player in this years festivities was Coillte, the Forestry company. Coillte have not been in the “Christmas tree business” for some time now, but they will source trees for special occasions or charities. The I BELIEVE Christmas Village qualifies as a charity organization because they give 10% of their Santa photo proceeds to charity, and organize a charity auction.
Coillte donated a 50 foot tree to the Christmas village in the IFSC. The marketing man behind Coillte, Tom Byrne, denied there was any involvement beyond the tree giving. Reviving the Coillte brand, however, is especially important in a city that can easily forget about its purpose.
On The Front Lines
For many of the city’s employees, Christmas means working in an environment that can resemble a war zone. In both the retail and hospitality industry, Christmas means long hours, increased stress, and physically demanding work loads. They will see an increase in income, but it may not always be worth the sacrifice.
To the stall holders on Moore Street, Christmas means 4 weeks of standing outside enticing shoppers to stop by. Many of them having been doing it for generations, but some believe the city has let them down by not doing enough to keep their small businesses alive.
Restaurant workers also bear the brunt of drunken office parties, and have to master the delicate art of dealing with stressed out organizers. Below is an interview with Jane Kupen, general manager for acclaimed city center restaurant, Luna.
The continuation of DublinTown will be put to a vote again in 2017. It needs to have its BID status renewed for a further 5 years. Perhaps people will vote it down, however that is a highly unlikely scenario.
Despite the disgruntled levy payers and suspicious finances, having an organization devoted to making things “nicer” is a great opportunity. Most people would count themselves lucky to live in such a city.
Looking back, I cannot help but wonder what truly came first behind the modern Christmas experience. Was it through naturally bringing people together that a industry was created around selling that idea? Or was it that we bought into something presented to us as festive and familial? The essence of Christmas could arguably be captured in the combined forces of lights, songs, smells, and tastes. A bright and buzzing city does bode a lot nicer in the face of a terrifying world.
The picture below was taken at Dublin Airport on Dec 16, 2015.