In fiscal crisis, Madrid slashes Christmas light spend

MADRID -- Weighing the cost of holiday lights against the value of holiday cheer during a world economic crisis.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID -- Spain has at least 23 percent unemployment and a large public debt. Should it be wasting a desperately needed 2.6 million euros on holiday lights?

(Bah, humbug.)

With lights aglow, as they are every year, the debate continues here as to whether Christmas decorations are a light-polluting waste of public money -- or if they are necessary cheer that helps usher shoppers out of their warm homes and into stores to boost the economy.

Technicians spent the last month hanging Madrid's Christmas lights. (Spain is an overwhelmingly Catholic country.) Last week, the city finally turned them on. Madrileños found fewer twinkling street corners, as the city cut back its Christmas decoration spending by about 30 percent.

[Photos: A glimpse at Christmas in Madrid, Spain]

Barrios like Plaza de España, Gran Via and Tirso de Molina, which had festive displays last year, have less or none at all this year. There are actually 600,000 fewer lamps, or about 1.5 million fewer bulbs, than last year.

Henar Aranda, a Madrid-based recruiter, confirmed that she noticed Madrid has fewer lights this year. She says the lights should stay, as people like the lights, even talking about it at work. "I like very much the spirit of Christmas, and lights are expensive, but not too expensive," Aranda says. "We only have one month for Christmas. It's important for children to be happy."

Aranda suggested that a compromise could be to not have the lights turned on as late. Currently, the lights are running from sunset until between 10p.m. and midnight, depending on the day of the week. While stores are usually open until 10, Madrid is a notoriously late city, where, on the weekends and sometimes weekdays, people stay out past sunrise.

Carlos Herranz Dorremochea, president of the Dark Sky Association Against Light Pollution, says that the lights should be turned off as soon as shops close. He advocates for trees to be decorated with large non-lit ornaments, to make an all day and night effort to jump start consumer consumption. Dorremochea wrote a letter to the editor of El Pais, one of Spain's largest newspapers, saying there is so much light pollution in Madrid--and the Western world in general-- that Melichior, Casper and Balthasar would never be able to find a star to follow.

The National Association of Lighting Manufacturers argues that these lights are crucial to the promotion of small businesses in an economic crisis and that the city sets a good example by investing in sustainable, environmentally-friendly lighting.

Christmas in Madrid continues to get eco-friendlier. This Christmas expects a 27-percent lower consumption rate than 2010, with the same 230 hours of lighting. The use of LED technologies has increased by 10-percent since last year, making 85 percent of the lights LED, with the other 15 percent "energy-saving lamps." The city council claims this makes it "one hundred percent efficient and sustainable lighting." Since Madrid has rocketing air pollution levels, it is helpful that these measures will prevent the emission of 35 tons of carbon dioxide, as well as save about half a million euros.

But can a price be placed on holiday cheer?

"I prefer that we have Christmas spirit. I don't think that in Madrid the waste is on Christmas," Aranda says. "I think that the problem is when the country wastes the money on a political campaign, but it is not a problem to decorate for Christmas." Spain actually cut the national election cost by about 3 million euros, leaving the perfect amount of money to fund Madrid's Christmas cheer.

A few more jobs have even been created for the Christmas season, as the city is employing a handful more sanitation workers to clean up after the expected extra merry-makers and shoppers.

With an unemployment level that could really be as high as 40 percent, maybe Madrileños -- and other world cities -- need to invest in things that don't have a concrete return on investment but make people smile more.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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