MARY Ptolomey, a 79-year-old widow born and bred in Port Glasgow, shares her cosy semi-detached home with a taciturn son Sam, a talkative green parrot called “Blue”, and 67 animatronic Santas. “I just love Christmas,” she says.
The house is on Bute Avenue, a steep street with grand views across the Firth of Clyde to the snowy hills of Argyll. On a fine day, Trident subs can be seen sailing to and from the Gare Loch.
It is hard, though, when visiting here, at this time of year, to lift one’s gaze that far. The eye tends to snag on wonders nearer at hand. The 7ft-tall inflatable Santa emerging from an inflatable chimney on the front grass, for instance. The illuminated Santa in the privet; the snowmen in the windows; the reindeer on the bench. Stand too long on Mrs Ptolomey’s lawn, it is said, and you’ll end up wired to the mains.
This part of Port Glasgow is home to a cluster of ostentatiously decorated houses, shining out from the winter darkness like puggies in dim pubs.
Seven-year-old Megan Morrison, smiling at an inflatable nativity scene at the bottom of her grandad’s driveway on School Road, declares the town “better than Blackpool”.
Megan has a point. There are so many lights in Mrs Ptolomey’s garden, for example, that her home is said to be visible from over the water in Helensburgh. The plugs, snug in a Farmfoods bag, are protected from snow and rain. Traffic slows as it passes, and people make special trips from neighbouring towns. From Erskine, they come; from Greenock, Garvock, Gourock.
Each year, Frank Ptolomey spends three weeks putting up his mother’s decorations. “Aye, it’s me that does it,” he says, pointing to his brother Sam, dozing in an armchair. “He’s too fat to get up the loft.”
A friendly 61-year-old with the word “hate” tattooed across the back of his left hand, Frank sometimes wears a Santa suit while setting out the Santas. He knows that when you’re dressed like that you ought to make a good impression.
He remembers taking his daughter, when she was wee, to meet Santa in Coronation Park and noticing how, whenever he reached down into his sack for a present, Santa would take a swig of Eldorado wine. “See by the time we got to the front of the queue,” says Frank, “Santa was getting lifted by the polis.”
The Ptolomey lights are switched on at the end of November and stay up until February. “Once we sober up and get rid of the hangover,” says Frank, “it’s time to get them back in the loft.”
One stormy night, Frank, who lives in Kilmacolm, was woken by his mother phoning, fearful, to say she’d heard someone breaking in through the roof. He sped over, only to discover that the intruder was nothing more than the 67 Santas in the loft, giving it laldy with the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” having been activated by a clap of thunder. His mother had forgotten to remove their batteries.
Mrs Ptolomey laughs at this. “My husband, God rest him, he used to say: ‘See when you go to the shops, would you stop buying decorations?’ But I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t go to bingo. I just buy Santa Clauses. And I’ll still be buying them if I live till 90, by the way.”
Over by the window, Blue the parrot squawks, at which the Santa above the cage starts singing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. This, in turn, sets off a toy train – the Northpole Express, which chuffs round the tinsely tree to the tune of We Wish You A Merry Christmas – and a snowman performing Jingle Bells in a warm Bing Crosby-ish baritone. Frank shrugs and grins: “This is a crazy house. No wonder I take a drink. See if I met the real Santa, I’d probably do him in.”
The association between Christmas and artificial lighting has a long history. Legend has it that the first person to place lit candles on a tree was Martin Luther, in an attempt to show his children how snow had shimmered on firs he saw while walking by moonlight.
The popular use of electric light, however, begins with Thomas Edison who, in 1882, created the world’s first electrically lit tree. The trend for decorating the exterior of homes with lights started in America during the 1950s, reaching Britain early in the following decade.
Now, of course, the phenomenon – sometimes known as “house-bling” – is widespread. Scots spend many millions of pounds on Christmas decorations each year, and though most of that will be on interiors, there are always some people happy to splurge their savings on a herd of metre-tall reindeer from the garden centre.
Plenty of folk are skint at the moment, of course, but this doesn’t seem to have made much difference. Often, the gaudiest homes are in areas which are not at all well-off.
It is too easy to sneer at these so-called “Christmas houses” or to write them off as simply kitsch. For them to be kitsch, in the modern sense of that word, those who create the displays would be doing so in an ironic, knowing way. But there is nothing ironic about Christmas lights, at least not in Port Glasgow. The thing that makes them most Christmassy is that they are heartfelt and sincere.
John Hurrell, 65, is a retired nightwatchman who lives on Cumbrae Drive. Most of the streets in this neighbourhood are named after islands. John has “Merry Christmas” written in lights above his front door and living room window. He has three illuminated snowmen and a skiing Santa. He has multi-coloured bulbs slung from his gutter and a strobing sledge flying towards his satellite dish. He himself appreciates very little of this as he is losing his sight. Yet Christmas without these lights would be, for John, unthinkable.
He lost the use of his left eye as a child; lost it when someone flung a penny banger in his pram. Glaucoma is now playing merry hell with his right. But this time of year is special to him. He and his wife, Hughina, known as “Ina”, married on Christmas Eve. They were both teenagers and she was pregnant.
“It was 1965 and The Beatles were number one with We Can Work It Out,” he remembers, fondly, “and we did work it out. Love doesn’t put a loaf on your table, and people maybe say we’re not well off, but we’ve got a roof over our head and food in the fridge and that’s all we need.”
Ina worries about the amount of money it costs to power these lights, especially as John sometimes has them flashing from September onwards, but he is unyielding on this issue. “I’m a person that takes a notion to do a thing and I just do it.”
Patrick McCartney, 40, lives on Islay Avenue, just up the road from the Hurrells. Golden bells, snowflakes and crescent moons cast a festive glow on the pebbledash. Stars that would be the envy of Vegas flash in front of the venetian blinds. Two Victorian-style streetlamps, made from ropelights, stand on each side of the doorstep. Santa shins up a drainpipe. McCartney was one of 13 children and remembers with fond nostalgia the hectic Christmases of his youth. He has been properly into Christmas lights since his early twenties. It all started with a 6ft snowman he spotted up the town one day, and snowballed from there.
“I wasn’t going to do it this year because I’ve had a tough time,” he says. “I suffer from cancer and my father’s lying ill, too. But I don’t know how many people knocked my door and stopped me in the street to ask when I was going to put these lights up. At first I felt I shouldn’t be doing this if I’m maybe going to be burying my father. But then I thought: ‘To hell with it, it’s Christmas efter aw.’ ”
Usually he puts his lights up in the first week of November, combining Bonfire Night and Christmas, setting off fireworks and then hitting the switches. But this year, because of his initial reluctance, he didn’t get his lights on until the end of the month.
What most people would consider a bit early, he regards as tardy. He turns them on, each day, at a quarter to four; off at 10pm sharp. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day they stay on all day and night. He is a stickler for what he regards as the proper ethics of Christmas lights: don’t leave them up, unlit, on the front of the house all year round – that’s cheating; make sure to create a different display each time; and, whatever you do, don’t try to compete with the neighbours: “See that: ‘I’ve got a Santa more than you…’ carry-on? It takes the goodness right out of Christmas.”
Back down the hill on Bute Avenue, Frank Ptolomey has changed into his Santa suit. There’s a party atmosphere. Cans of lager are on the go. Even the paperboy has been asked in to admire the decorations. Frank sits his mother on his knee, as if she’s a wee girl after presents, and yanks down his white beard to make himself heard.
“This is nothing, by the way,” he says to me, gesturing round the lights. “You want to come back up here in the summer and see all her garden gnomes. I’m telling you, it’s no’ real.” «