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“Starry Nights, City Lights.” - A Comprehensive Review of Melbourne’s Lighting of The Tree

Recently, the Provocative Inklings (an emerging writing group aimed at writing pieces that spark thinking and a little bit of mischief!) visited Melbourne's Christmas Tree Lighting of Melbourne. But we all had a different take on what really went down... read on for our honest review of Christmas Square!

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Dear reader,

Recently, the Provocative Inklings (an emerging writing group aimed at writing pieces that spark thinking and a little bit of mischief!) visited Melbourne's Christmas Tree Lighting of Melbourne. But we all had a different take on what really went down... read on for our honest review of Christmas Square!

Kartiya Ilardo

Melbourne is one of the best cities to experience Christmas. Throughout the month of December, Melbourne will be hosting many family-friendly Christmas activities including mazes, scavenger hunts, film screenings, markets, plus many more.

We decided to attend the lighting of the Christmas tree. There were couples kissing and children screaming with joy. The candy cane people welcome us into the event. With their cherry red noses and cherry striped get up, the canes bonk me on the head as I enter the Christmas wonderland. They evoke belly laughter from the crowd that surrounds them. The smell of freshly unpacked gingerbread biscuits lull me into a Christmas dream.

The canes envelop us in a warm hug. It signals the start of Melbourne’s Christmas Wonderland.

Federation square glistens with golden tinsel and Christmas ornaments of the Christmas colours. The bridge is adorned with candy canes. Loved up couples stand at the edge, the sparkling blue water paints the background of their photo as they capture themselves with the ‘Merry Christmas’ signage. 

Back at Federation Square, I notice children with intricate face paints. We decided to nominate J.D. Jameson to stand in line whilst the other members explored the rest of what Federation Square had to offer.

There were arches decked with foliage and red ribbons, all covered by dainty fairy lights.

“You know, they missed an opportunity here. A touch of mistletoe would have really brought this Christmas wonderland to life.” I said to Cherie, she agreed.

We arrived at the main stage where there were choir singers dressed in bright colours. There are singers in wheelchairs and singers of all ages. Their diversity shone through as they started to synchronise their voices and gift the crowd with Christmas Melodies such as From Little Things, Big Things Grow and more classic Christmas favourites.

Children swayed their arms and danced with abandon. Couples swaddled and wore beaming smiles. I looked around at my friends and couldn’t believe how lucky I was to experience the birth of the Christmas spirit with the most wonderful souls.

Love, joy and harmony were sung and felt by all the people.

As the choir died down we decided to leave for a local bar. As we walked the peaceful streets of Melbourne, we saw the Town Hall wrapped up in a giant red bow. A gift from Melbourne to its people.

The sky mellowed into a soft pastel darkness as we found our way to the bar.

Jameson kindly shouted the group drinks and later quizzed us what flavour the non-alcoholic wine was. I took a sip of it and let it savour on my tongue.

“It tastes like lemonade Hydralyte.” I replied truthfully.

Angus and I then rattled off all the citrus fruits we could think of, we found out it was yuzu lemon and orange wine. The perfect citrus cocktail to complement the budding Christmas spirit.

Angus, Cherie and I decided it was time to head back to Federation Christmas square to witness Mayor Sally Capp address her citizens with Christmas cheer.

Nighttime had fallen and Christmas ornaments lit up the way as we sped walked in and out of Melbourne’s bustling laneways. People’s laughter faded in and out as we ran across roads and ducked through hoards of jolly people.

And there it was. The Christmas tree. Lit up in all its glory.

We quickly darted our way through the people expecting to find the mayor, but the stage was empty. After a few seconds of investigative journalism, and a conversation with a friendly events worker, we found out she hadn’t arrived at all.

I looked around and felt disappointed, but no one else bore a sad smile because Christmas is for the people, and the people didn’t need anyone else to tell them to have a good time. All they needed was a tall electrical Christmas tree, free cookies and the people they love to have the night of their lives.

The tree lights danced in unison with the techno music. Red and green lights lit up the SBS building as spotlights shone across the cloudy skies. The city lived up to its name “starry nights, city lights” as the man-made Christmas biome sparked to life.

An epic technical bass drop signalled the end of the show. It was anti-climatic and no cheering could be heard, and in all honesty it was because it wasn’t much of a bass drop. It was a show that left people expecting more.

“Is it finished?” I questioned and looked around.

No one knew.

As the clock struck nine, we made our way under the candy cane bridge to the bridge surrounded by a huge lit-up star. By this time, we were wet, from sweat and rain, but our spirits were high as we watched the Christmas Docklands Light Show.

Remember, Jameson and Amy hadn't arrived yet and were still at the bar. Angus frantically took photos of where we were waiting for them, near the Flinders Street Tunnel. He showed Cherie and I the pictures which were… to say the least, not helpful at all. After 30 mins and a chaotic FaceTime call, we met up under the star. Rainbow lights dashed across a ball and sprinkled the cloudy and rainy atmosphere. People laughed and milled about the Lightshow capturing the moment on their phones so they could relive it forever.

Let Melbourne awaken your Christmas spirit this year.

Merry Christmas,

The Provocative Inklings

xx

 

Angus Clark

Christmas. Or as my dad likes to call it, the Yuletide. Somewhere along the line he dropped Christianity, left my mum and took up paganism. I’m wishing his journey well, sincerely.

The Lighting of the Tree, while brimming with jovial attitude, lacked a certain heart and connection to its source material. You could call it Christmas, but like my father I think you'd be more correct if you adopted one of its other names. For this occasion, I would recommend Hollowmas.

Walking into the transformed Federation Square, green and twinkling prettily around the giant snowflake tree, it felt too much like the finely curated Myer window displays on Bourke St; sublime renditions of familiar objects, people and creatures with no other true intent beyond beguiling you into a sense of nostalgia that leads you to buy something you didn’t actually want in an economic climate where you actually couldn’t afford it. Sure, the performances (shoutout to the Melbourne Mass Gospel Choir), cookies, gingerbread and face painting were all free, and two frantically joyous candycane people welcomed us off the streets with warm hospitality. But a mere 50 metres in any direction and I would find my memory flooding with the images of an extremely impoverished person hiding under the Swanston Bridge from the rain, or trying to sleep  along Flinders Station, or screaming at St Paul’s Cathedral, “WHERE IS GOD!?”

Fed Square begins to remind me of the Roman Circus and free bread; tactics employed by the emperors over a struggling state who, in the abstaining from any real effort to fix it, chose to cover over our eyes with free gingerbread men that I have seen being sold in cafes for over $7!

Now I must concede this to the planners; Christmas square (the glistening new name for the installation) and the Christmas projections are all 100% wind powered! Amazing, some sustainability in the event. The Melbourne Christmas Walk nearby was immensely pretty with the rainbow Star acting as some kind of portal between Southbank and the CBD, with giant friendship-braceletesque blocks spelling MERRY CHRISTMAS.

The nearby Bridge had been adorned with giant glowing candycanes and made for a lovely procession of full trams and cars. It was beautiful. Complemented by the Town Hall being covered in a digital, motion display of gingerbread, tied with a big, red ribbon  and the gorgeous shooting stars trailed by baubles that dazzled the streets, the CBD had summoned forth some semblance of happy beauty I think we all need in these trying times that drag on and never get better.

But I will not be deceived into a sense of appeasement, or have my frustration sedated by an event that could have connected so much better with its audience: the humans who live here. What do lyrics like “we sing for love, live for justice, long for freedom … dream of peace,” matter when they are mere veneers of what we want to not just hear but see, feel and know?

After becoming increasingly drenched, I turned my scarf into a shawl for cover, and we left for a quick drink at Lane’s Edge and then rushed back to the event for the tree lighting and the Mayor’s speech. I had some hope. I thought, perhaps the mayor will express and unify these threads that have been carelessly strewn about the event - give the people the message they want. Kartiya, Cherie and I rushed through the crowd to the stage, seven minutes late…
Huffing, we broke through the massive pile of people around the igniting tree only to see a tech member packing up the stage. Did we miss it!? I find the nearest staff member and ask.

“Uhhh let’s see… we had the mayor and a chancellor queued up to talk tonight. Neither showed up. Whatever they had on was clearly more important,” he said.

My face dropped. How disappointing. Another microaggression from a politician, against the people, that actively harms the perception of their reliability. This is all I have room to say, and perhaps I had set myself up to be jaded from high expectations. It seems that those with the power to craft positive symbols and powerful metaphors are tragically inept. 

Go make your own merry Christmas spirit. You have the power to make joy out of anything.

Amy Worttman

Federation Square occupies a small and seagull-filled niche in my heart. It is somewhere I think I would’ve gone in my first year — maybe to sit down with my coffee and work, while avoiding the masses of seagulls and tourists — if I hadn’t been flung into the depths of lockdown. The CBD as a whole occupies a strangely distant place in my heart; it is somewhere I wasn’t allowed to go for the first two years of my degree, and in a strange post-lockdown Melbourne, I have been slow to emerge. So, when my darling Inklings took it upon ourselves to review the lighting of the Christmas tree at Federation Square, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. As my tram trundled over, the distinctive Melbourne mix of old buildings and minimalist grey became peppered with raindrops. Federation Square emerged as a string of lights in the drizzle.

In the midst of surviving adult life and writing an Honours thesis, I had forgotten how much I love night-markets and the like. When I stepped off the tram, I found myself in an atmosphere that was already buzzing with life. Small throngs of people — families with children, groups of students, the occasional couple in smart Melbourne trim — meandered through the lines of decorations. Two lurching candy-cane figures heralded our arrival, surprisingly cheery for customer service workers covered in facepaint on a rainy day. They greeted us by bonking us with the curved tops of their candy-cane costumes: a gesture I found both endearing and entertaining, as I imagined a fantastical candy-cane society where bonking was the equivalent of a handshake (is this the kind of thought-provoking content we’re going for, Inklings?).

Behind the candy canes, a sprawl of marquees rose valiantly against the rain: face painting, free cookies, various miscellaneous Christmas-themed attractions. We took it upon ourselves to trial each of these in turn. The Christmas cookies were gingerbread, with the kind of blocky white icing that invokes a rush of 2000’s birthday party nostalgia. Lachy braved a 45-minute wait in the queue for a spectacular winter-themed face painting; I also braved Lachy’s 45-minute wait by joining him when he was near the front of the line.

What I didn’t anticipate coming into the Christmas tree lighting was a slew of well-organised activities beforehand. We found ourselves shepherded into the heart of Fed Square to watch the Melbourne Mass Gospel Choir. To be totally candid, I was expecting Christmas songs and a somewhat subdued atmosphere; instead, I was pleasantly surprised with Paul Kelly. There is something endearingly local about a group of people gathering to celebrate Christmas together; a sentiment I cherish especially having spent my first two years without it.

If I’m going to be honest, this is the biggest thing I took away from the Fed Square Christmas tree lighting. Not the tree itself, and the way it lit up the violet air. Not the candy canes bobbing their way through the crowd, or the Mayor failing to show up. It was the brushing of shoulders in the slow-moving crowd, and the growing warmth in the air as the Gospel Choir sang ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.

 

J.D. Jameson

It was all quiet on the Christmas front when I arrived at the Christmas Square at 6:30pm. There was a hushed tone as a gentle downpour of rain sizzled on the embers of a waning Christmas spirit. Those few that had gathered at this time huddled together, not for warmth but for conversation, for there was not much doing at the event's official start time. I wisely used the opportunity to use the bathroom, which I can gladly report was in perfect working order.

It was upon leaving the bathroom that I first noticed the Christmas tree, the centrepiece of the night's festivities. The tree stood as a colossus, an overbearing presence to the sparsely decorated plaza as Uluru is to the treeless plains surrounding it. The tree was plastic and modular, consisting of repeating units of spiny dendritic ice crystals, the colour of aquamarine and with niveous white tips for extra Christmassy zeal.

For most of the event I spent my time observing this tree (If you could call it one) from the line of the facing painting line. There was nothing much else to see. The wait was long and arduous, I would often measure progress through blades of grass. It did, however, provide me a quiet moment of reflection on what Christmas meant to not only me, but Australia as a whole. While I can not speak for the multiethnic nation that is Australia (and do not wish to do so), I believe the display I bore witness to does provide some insights into how Christmas is received in Australia by those who celebrate it.

During my wait, my mind flickered to various other Winter or Christmas celebrations around the world. I imagined at that moment what it would be like to attend a Weihnachtsmarkt in Berlin or Dresden or Hamburg — the sprawling markets meticulously decorated and laid out as though they had been chiselled by hand from an ancient tree. Or what it would be like to see the lighting of the Rockerfeller Christmas tree, and to soak in all its neon brilliance. Instead I was here, and while I didn’t hate it (for what poor soul could hate Christmas), I yearned to be a part of a tradition that either had its roots in antiquity or was of mind boggling scale and brilliance.

While these are unfair comparisons, it does illuminate the key element that makes a successful Christmas celebration — tradition. Australia’s fascination with Christmas has always been limited to the leisure time it brings. It is a time to hit the beach and enjoy the pristine summer weather that the nation is blessed by each year. Everything else, the trees, the gifts, the decorations, the drug-store snowglobes your Grandma gives you every year that you secretly hate, are all secondary to this. Other nations, particularly those tucked away in the icy realms of the northern hemisphere, can not rely on good weather for a good time, the harsh conditions required some creativity – hence the great traditions and elaborate displays of lights and decorations.

As I watched on from the solitude of the face-painting line, I realised the tree came to epitomise not just the event, but how Christmas is perceived in this nation. It has all the hallmarks of traditional western Christmas symbolism — it had the correct conical shape, was able to light up and had a star placed resolutely at the top. Yet, symbolism is only half the battle — the tree was sparsely ornamented and made of cheap plastic; it had everything except the most crucial element of Christmas — the spirit. I had seen more earnest displays of Christmas spirit on someone's front porch.

But the tree also had an element of bizarreness to it, one that was not obvious in the chill of a dreary Melbourne evening. As we enter the Summer months, where 30+ degree days are not unheard of, why then is our centrepiece tree, made of ice? And also, why is it we, and by extension Melbourne Council, feel the need to import traditions from nations on the other side of the world, traditions that do not fit the landscape or culture of the nation. The heart of Christmas in Australia will always be found around the table of family relatives at lunch time, and the loveable arguments that ensue; or at the beach, soaking in the intoxicating rays of a scorching sun. I seriously question the role events such as these play in our understanding and celebration of Christmas.    

And as for the face painting… It was the highlight of my night and the lady that did it was delightful.

 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Two 2023

EDITION SIX 'PHANTASMAGORIA' AVAILABLE NOW!

The harpsichords sound like skeletons. The wings of butterflies open and close like lungs. The trees are murdered for pianos. The dust in the abandoned antique store glows gently, as if made from the powdered skulls of fairies and changelings. Welcome to the weird and wonky world of Edition Six, Phantasmagoria. We bid you to tread carefully...

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