Even though Christmas is a religious celebration, the annual light-up is ultimately a commercial one. It was first organised to promote Singapore as a tourist destination, and over the years has evolved to encourage shoppers to part with their money. Despite knowing this, Singaporeans and tourists alike still flock to Orchard boulevard to soak in the holiday atmosphere, to enjoy the dazzling decorations, and more importantly, to seek the best festive deals.
What has changed, and what has stayed the same?
How long is it up for?
For most of us, we know that the light-up is a thing that roughly starts some time in November, and comes down after Christmas. But it has not always been this way. The very first light-up started pretty close to Christmas in mid-December, and was incredibly well-received with huge turnouts.
In subsequent years, the starting date for the light-up became increasing earlier, but eventually averaged around mid-November and ending in the first week of January. Of course, there have been exceptions.
What time does it get lit?
The Christmas light-up at Orchard is not merely just decoration—it is an event. Since 1985, every light-up is accompanied with an opening event that sees a VIP (almost always the President of Singapore) officiating the start, usually involving the ceremonial push of a giant button to represent the collective brightening of Orchard Road. How was this changed as well?
For obvious reasons, most of the light-ups took place at night time. Between 1985 to 2010, it was mostly between 7pm to 7:30pm. However, in recent years, the timings have been earlier at 6pm to 6:30pm. In 2017, the light-up ceremony even took place at 3pm (which makes one wonder what is even the point), to “maximise the design advantage of this year’s decorations”.
Has the light-up stretch always just been on Orchard Road?
No. The stretch that we are most familiar with is the one from Tanglin to Dhoby Ghaut, and from Tangs to Goodwood Park hotel. This path was a constant from 1998 to 2003, and 2010 to 2018. What happened outside of these years was a history in experimentation.
In 1986, the stretch extended to the Merlion Park at Anderson Bridge, presumably to direct tourists to the Merlion. A decade later, in what is still the longest stretch ever, people could admire the twinkling lights all the way to Rochor, Penang Road, and Coleman Street. From 2004 to 2008, the stretch extended to the Marina Bay Sands, as the lights intermingled with the iconic backdrop of the Singapore Flyer and the Esplanade. With this year’s route extending to Grange Road, it looks like we can continue to expect changes in the light-up stretch.
How have the themes changed?
When we talk about themes, most of us will recall last year’s “Disney Magical Moments”, that caused some controversy. But was it an anomaly?
Looking back at the light-up’s history, it does appear that ‘Disney Magical Moments’ was a one-off theme, and perhaps was the reason for the raised eyebrows. But for the most part, many of the themes revolve around imagining or recreating an atmosphere that cannot be found in Singapore.
We’ve categorised them, and the two largest groups are ‘Christmas’, and ‘Happy stuff’.
But how is this uniquely Singaporean?
For something that is so explicitly commercial, Singaporeans have surprisingly strong feelings about it. In true Singaporean spirit, It is now almost mandatory to complain about the light-up.
Everyone in Singapore knows, if you’re unhappy about something, there’s one place to show it: the Straits Times Forum. Throughout the light-up’s history, many have written to the newspapers to air their displeasure at the light-up. The bulk of the criticisms have been directed at the light-up’s bad design, such as poor colour choice, unimaginative decoration, and so on.
There is even an opinion piece complaining about how Singaporeans complain too much about the light-up.
More interestingly, there are a handful of ‘not enough’ type of complaints. The light-up is often a site of debate—should it be more religious or less? Should it be more multicultural or less? Should it just be about Christmas, or also about charity? These conversations reflect that clearly, the Orchard Road Christmas light-up is more than just a commercial undertaking. Perhaps, it is a representation of our unique national identity.
Whatever it is, as you take a stroll along Orchard Road this December, do remember before you comment on the decoration: lighten-up, it’s Christmas.
We gathered our data and information namely from archival newspapers, specifically from NLB NewspapersSG and Factiva, using the keywords “orchard”, “christmas”, and “light-up”, and narrowed our searches to the months of November and December. Where there were information gaps that could not be found in archival newspapers, we looked at other archival documents from the National Archives of Singapore instead.
Research and writing: Isabella Chua, Ng Zu Xiang
Data visualisation and design: Siti Aishah, Joceline Kuswanto, Griselda Gabriele