Let’s face it: most of the things we love about the winter holidays—the family gatherings, the parties and overindulgent meals, the giving and receiving of gifts—are also pretty stressful. Many of us cross over into the New Year feeling as if we’ve just run a marathon: happy, but exhausted, and figuratively and literally spent.
Maybe that’s why so many of us—all over the world—get wildly enthused about holiday light displays. They’re one of the only parts of the season that feel truly, unadulteratedly joyful; they’re free, they’re enchanting, and they require nothing of us, other than that we take a few minutes to enjoy them.
Of course, the more exuberantly over-the-top a light display is, the more we appreciate it. Outrageous holiday spectacles, after all, imply herculean efforts; someone—not us!—spent weeks, even months, setting up the Christmas trees, winding and draping the light cords, programming and coordinating the music, all for our amusement.
And it really doesn’t matter whether the displays are elegantly tasteful or unabashedly cheesy. Some cities mount installations that dazzle with graceful artistry: in Copenhagen, for example, lights adorning the historic Tivoli Gardens and Christmas market are created by the design director at Tiffany & Co.; in the Tokyo district of Roppongi, last year’s cosmos-themed “Milky Way” light show evoked an outré outdoor art exhibit.
In other places, the aesthetic is more akin to gleeful glitz—the flashier the better. Some destinations that embrace shameless extravagance aren’t especially surprising; would we expect anything less of Walt Disney World than 10 miles of winking, “dancing” Christmas lights? But some—like Brussels, where the stately, impressive 15th-century Town Hall goes luminously goofy for the holidays—are.
No matter what kind of spectacle we prefer (and hey, a musical tree at the mall or a neighbor's decked-out house can be every bit as fun as big-city pyrotechnics), it’s important to try to catch one. Even if it’s on the way to an anxiety-producing fête or during a panicked last-minute shopping run, these displays can conjure something in us that’s too rare this time of year: genuine good cheer.