Birmingham’s best ever Christmas lights have been switched on – and there was barely anyone there to notice.
Exactly a week after the year’s second lockdown began on November 5 – the day the 21st annual German Market should have opened earlier than ever before had it not been cancelled on September 9 – this year’s festive lights have been switched on without any kind of fanfare.
The 2020 lights would have done the city proud in any era, especially in the days when counting down to the flick of the switch was one of the key dates in the city’s diary.
But that was until 2009 when four people were seriously injured in a crush at a free concert given by X Factor stars JLS.
Since 2015, the diminished event has been timed to coincide with the opening of the Birmingham German Market Christmas Market in Victoria Square (in the days when it began after Armistice Day).
Regardless of the effort put in to the actual moment of illumination, the lighting up of the city’s streets would be the official sign that the pre-Christmas shopping period was up and running in earnest.
For those visiting the hugely popular German Market in the last five years, it was also the signal to gather round a bratwurst stall or ice-cold beer bar with friends, family or work colleagues ready to reaffirm a collective love for each other at the tail end of another year of work.
But what a difference Covid-19 has made to that sense of camaraderie as you can see in our start of lockdown contrast between 2019 and 2020
With social distancing imperative to reduce the spread of the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic, the lights were switched on in daylight this morning to make sure they worked.
And, of course, in good time for them to glow their way into the city’s night time air via twilight.
The LED lights in key shopping areas like New Street are bigger and better than we’ve seen before, with the kind of purple hue we might expect to enjoy on stage at a giant Birmingham Hippodrome panto.
Local business group Retail BID Birmingham has helped to fund the improvements as well as again providing the lights which illuminate all of the trees in the usually busy thoroughfare.
A BID spokesman said: “Everyone felt it was right to put the lights on to brighten up the streets in the absence this year of the German Market.
“There might not be as many people here as usual at the moment.
“But we hope they will help to make the streets safer on dark nights for those who still live and work in the area as well as providing a sense of optimism that shops will reopen after lockdown is due to end on December 2.”
The near disaster
In more recent times, it became the fashion to try to have bigger and better events to coincide with the lights being switched on.
All of that ended 11 years ago on Saturday, November 14, 2009 when X Factor sensations JLS were hired to appear in Millennium Point.
Back then, the Curzon Street side of the building was a giant, block-paved area – later to become Eastside City Park which opened three years later in December 2012.
So many fans turned up, the barriers were stormed and youngsters broke through police lines.
Sixty people were injured, including four seriously, as the event descended into chaos and some of those at the front of the 20,000-plus crowd were crushed.
Gemma Cartwright from Kings Norton told us that it was the worst experience of her life.
The NHS worker, who took her four children and her mother to see JLS, thought she was going to see a repeat of the Hillsborough tragedy, in which 96 football fans died.
“I was being crushed,” she said shortly afterwards. “I was pushed up against the barrier and I had nowhere to go. My kids were hysterical.
“A young girl fainted in front of me and had to be passed over the crowd to the ambulance crew.
“I feel sorry for the police. They seemed to be outnumbered and weren’t coping. Birmingham Council should be ashamed. The place they chose wasn’t big enough to hold such an event.”
Parade axed in 2015
Since that terrible night, even Santa’s traditional parade around town had been axed after falling on hard times.
The event was said to cost £50,000 but it was held for the last time in 2014.
The parade was scrapped in 2015 after austerity saw Birmingham City Council’s budget being slashed by £105 million and no sponsors were found.
The lights switch on took place on November 12, 2015 and became part of the opening day activities on the Frankfurt Christmas Market as it’s formally known.
Today, it’s already two years since the famous House of Fraser grotto was open for the eighth and final time to enable families to meet Father Christmas in a winter wonderland setting.
The set was retained on the firth floor all year round, but would be reopened every November to raise money for charity.
In its later years its snow scenes and cobbled streets were spray painted to wonderful effect by the Wolverhampton graffiti artist Temper
After Mike Ashley bought the company and there was uncertainty about its future pending plans to redevelop the site, the grotto was kept closed last year.
A member of staff who asked not to be named told us last November: ” Christmas isn’t cancelled
“We’ve pulled out the stops to decorate the rest of the store better than ever before.
“The ground floor looks amazing.”
Even though the store has experienced a revival this year when allowed to open, no retail enthusiast last December could have foreseen that all ‘non-essential’ shops would have spent most of 2020 unable to open.
Nobody would have predicted there would be no 21st anniversary Birmingham German Christmas Market.
No return of Ice Skate Birmingham’s Big Wheel and Ice Rink to Centenary Square
And certainly nobody would have guessed that the Christmas lights switch on would have been as low key as the one today.
The ‘old’ days
Archive pictures of Corporation Street show how seriously the city used to take Christmas even as recently as the 1980s.
The road in front of Rackhams (now House of Fraser) looked magnificent when lit by thousands of bulbs.
Since the West Midlands Metro opened in May, 2016, the street has been a shadow of its former self despite some local traders calling for uplighters to replace the kind of lights which cannot not be hung because of the cabling for the electric trams.
Looking on the bright side, at least the festive images created by LED technology mean that other streets can now be lit up in more creative ways than ever.
And, in the spirit of a greener world, the LED displays also cost a lot less to illuminate than the old fashioned bulbs.