Phoenix's Pathetic Attempt at Christmas Decorations Makes Us Say, "Bah Humbug"

It's funny, the things you remember.

In 1979, I was the photographer for my high school newspaper. Our new journalism advisor, a mean-spirited psychopath named Barbara, wanted a story about the holiday displays in downtown Phoenix. Babs had just moved here from Florida and assumed that Phoenix did what most other big cities did: decorate for Christmas.

"This is Phoenix," I recall telling my teacher. "We don't have stuff like that here."

Babs thought I was trying to get out of another cheeseball assignment and threatened to fire me if I didn't return with a roll of film images of downtown's holiday décor. (She eventually did fire me, for refusing to photograph the Key Club "only from the neck up, because so many of them are fat." I told you, she was a bitch.)

"This is it?" Babs hollered once I'd developed my film. (Desperate to fill out my assignment, I had also photographed the façade of Beth El Congregation at 11th Avenue and Glendale.) "This town sucks!"

It was the only thing Babs and I ever agreed on.

I've thought of my horrible high school journalism teacher every year at this time, as I've driven past the same crummy Christmas wreaths and plastic candles I photographed more than 30 years ago. The city is still using them to tart up a couple dozen lampposts, just as they did back when I was a teen. It's not enough. The garland-trimmed holiday thingies are too small, and they're so high up on the lampposts that they're barely visible. But, with a couple of middling exceptions, they're about all we have.

The lack of big, splashy holiday décor is another of the oddball ways in which our town is lacking. Sure, we have that big string of lights shaped like a Christmas tree that gets draped over the Hyatt each December. But that's not a city of Phoenix thing, that's a Hyatt thing. There are various outdoor crèches on display in front of a whole lot of churches all over the Valley, most of them involving plastic light-up Wise Men and sometimes a polyurethane Elmo or a blow-up Santa, just for kicks. But those are adornments offered by the churches, not by the city. Ditto that big tree made out of poinsettias at Biltmore Fashion Park and the shiny plastic spruce pine that Mayor Gordon presented last month at CityScape: These are public displays of affection for Christmas offered not by our city but rather by shopping malls. Of course, you can always pay to see ZooLights at the Phoenix Zoo or the luminarias (paper bags with candles in them! Woo-hoo!) at Desert Botanical Gardens, but neither of these is a public display visible from any city street.

To be fair, the city will host an electric light parade this weekend, but it doesn't leave behind anything Hannukah- or Santa-specific. There's no giant tree to light in our town square at the end of the parade; once the elf-centric floats pass by, that's it. Gone. Which is not only a real downer but also kind of embarrassing when you consider that pretty much every Valley town and city around us has some kind of government-funded hoo-ha honoring the holidays. Gilbert has its Holiday Night of Lights; Scottsdale has blanketed McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in a bunch of tinsel and also offers a colossal downtown bash with an unfortunate name, Holiday Harmony Snow and Glow; the Ahwatukee Festival of Lights wraps a bunch of cactuses in lights for all to ogle; and Fountain Hills has something called Stroll in the Glow, a public display of Yule featuring 60,000 twinkling lights and a visit from not only Santa, but his wife as well. Glendale really pulls out all the stops with Glendale Glitters, a weeks-long street party for which it drapes every tree in its downtown park with billions of little lights and which kicks off with a countdown to the lighting of a colossal pine.

I know: I should be grateful that our city is using its tax dollars wisely. But who wants to live in a town that treats the holiday season like just one more annoying expense? Is anyone but me embarrassed that Phoenix hasn't budgeted for so much as a sprig of ivy, while the city of Avondale is paying for a giant public ice-sculpture exhibit in honor of the season? Avondale, for Christ's sake!

At least the little lamppost things are back this year. Three years ago, the city cut these paltry decorations from its budget, leaving the mistletoe and holly up to for-profit organizations to display. (My friend Nathan reports that he was panhandled by the city, which was collecting funds from private citizens to pay for some kind of holiday display that never materialized.) This year, someone at Parks and Recreation took pity on those of us who need a bunch of big plastic candy canes, and found some corporate sponsors to Christmas the city up a little for a change.

And so, for the first time in years, Phoenix will have a little public holiday display — emphasis on the little. If you remember to look way, way up as you're driving down Central Avenue, from south of the river bottom down to Southern Road, you'll see those familiar rubber poinsettias and polyethylene saguaros atop the lamp posts.

Merry fucking Christmas, Phoenix.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela