Although Matraville is only a 20-minute drive from Sydney’s CBD, it could be another universe. It’s a picture perfect kind of suburbia; almost eerily calm and collected. But every year in early December, when the sunset gives way to the darkness, a cluster of these streets burst into a brilliant chorus of Christmas lights.
This year, Knowles Avenue and Barwon Crescent has been turned into a residential Vegas strip, somehow both tacky and delightful. It pulls a crowd of young families on Friday and Saturday nights, but if you’re less inclined to do the footwork you can join the long string of cars doing drive-by viewings at a snail’s pace.[fold]
The Kidston Home
One of the houses that strikes us as going against the grain, is lined with only white lights and scattered with stars. John and Nicola Kidston were a little restrained this year, their adornments standing out in their simplicity.
"When we first moved here, we didn't do anything. We just watched," says John. "We were like the missing tooth in the nice, shining row of white teeth. We stood out. So [the next year] we thought, ‘Let’s just really go for it.’”
"It was a bit of peer pressure to be honest," adds Nicola. "We wanted something a bit different to the colours and the blow-up Santas," says Nicola. "We appreciate the blow-up Santas, but it's not quite for us."
The Con Home
Kiki and Tom Con have been putting up lights for about eight years. Their birdbath has been topped with an illuminated angel and the path up to her door is lined with dancing snowmen. The Con house is a compelling cacophony of lights and sound; it’s festive in a way that is extreme but wondrous. Who started it?
“I started it,“ says Kiki.
“I was willing to help!” interrupts Tom.
“But I started it, you were willing to help me,” confirms Kiki.
She arranges the lights on the ground, but sends her husband onto the roof for the more lofty arrangements. “About eight or nine years ago the man across the road put them up and I thought, ‘Hmmmm…that’s nice’ and so the next year I put up some lights…and it just grew.” Kiki talks about starting this Christmas tradition as though it was some endearing accident that just got out of hand, a seemingly common sentiment from many of her neighbours.
“This year it’s not as big,” she observes. “Maybe some people are worried about their electricity bills. But I think it’s nice to do. You may use a lot of electricity this time, but next time you just use a little less.”
For Tom and Kiki, living with their grandchildren offers an extra incentive to go all out. Another family stops to take a look, and their grandchildren show them how to make the snowmen start dancing. Like many things you’ll bear witness to in an evening here at this time of year, it’s a strange but sweet scene.
The Dee Home
Carol Dee explains the origins of her decorating venture in strangely similar terms: "We went out to have a look at lights somewhere way out where they used to do them. I just came home and bought a set of lights and put them up. And then [my neighbour] bought a set of lights and put them up, so I bought another set to make mine a bit better and then...you know."
Her front lawn is staked with candy canes and there are seemingly infinite iterations of Santa Claus in her window display. "We've probably got it down pat now, but it usually takes about a weekend to do the window…a couple of nights, a couple of days,” she says. “But it makes people happy for the little bit of work we put in.”
As Carol talks, a Jeep cruises through, crowned with Christmas lights with the insides light up bright and blasting carols. She explains: "He comes every year this car – every year." On any other street it would probably seem more bizarre than it does on this one.
The Ford Home
Anthony and Susan Ford have one of the most impressive set-ups on their front lawn – rows of wooden cut-outs of gingerbread men, nutcracker soldiers, elves and the usual cast of Christmas characters. An arch stands at the front, specifically for families to have their photos taken.
Taking “probably three or four workings days, eight hours a day” to set up, it’s no small venture. But why go to the trouble? “Probably for the kids…and we just get a lot of satisfaction out of doing it,” say the Fords.
“We’ve got as [many cut-outs] in the sheds as we do on the lawn. We just put the main things out each year, swap them around and try to get the combinations right… There’s a few arguments in between but we eventually settle on what goes where. But we have fun doing it. If it was a pain in the arse we wouldn’t do it.” The couple say that: “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to make it better than anyone’s… Anyone can put lights up really, and if you’re going to do something you may as well be different.”
The van Vliet Home
In the daylight, the van Vliet house looks vaguely festive, but by evening it is more akin to a glowing wonderland, with lights weaved through the bushes and scattered over the roof. It’s a bit like a playground in fact – in the dark, children circle and chase each other, leaping over the stepping stones to get to the porch where you can peer into their window filled with Christmas paraphernalia.
John van Vliet says that "We've been doing it for 20 years or so, the last 12 here in this street. And it does grow, each year is a bit bigger."
What keeps him coming back to do it every single year? "Well, the missus tells me to do it," he laughs. Like many of his neighbours, he can’t seem to point to a single definitive reason for all this glittering splendour. It might be the rare chance for all-out, all-consuming festivities. It might just be for the hell of it. And despite the considerable effort that goes into their display, John insists, "We're nothing around here really. Not like Campbelltown, we were there last night and…it was absolutely bizarre."