Not so long ago, Christmas was the only time we strung up fairy lights and they were usually confined to the tree.
The big switch on was always a special moment. We crossed our fingers that the lights would illuminate and hoped we wouldn’t have to spend half-an-hour finding and replacing the bad bulb.
Now, fairy lights are everywhere, all the time, in every colour and in a dizzying array of designs.
Their twinkle is life-enhancing, they brighten rooms and gardens and they make you smile. So why did it take us so long to embrace year-round sparkle?
Jo Naughton, of Harrogate-based Lights4Fun, isn’t completely sure but she can pinpoint the time when the fashion for fairy lights really took off.
“It was about five years ago. The market had been growing and we had a really good summer and that’s when people began to really use their garden and think about lighting it. That continued indoors,” says Jo, who was in prime position to spot the trend.
She and her husband, Tim, founded their company in 2003 when their HQ was the kitchen table and they plied their trade through a paper catalogue. Business boomed and the firm, which now sells globally via its online store, is renowned as the best British supplier of outdoor and indoor lights.
Tim who has a background in finance, worked for British Leyland and Jo was a PA to the chairman of a plc, when they had their lightbulb moment.
After their third set of outdoor Christmas tree lights blew in the space of one week, they were inspired to find a solution to a problem that had irritated generations.
Tim went hunting for quality and finally found it in a German supplier.
Realising there was a huge gap in the market for well-made, long-lasting and well-designed lights, he and Jo scraped together £250,000 start-up capital from savings and a bank loan and launched their business.
In their first year, they took 5,000 orders for their “virtually indestructible Christmas lights for the garden” and soon expanded.
They are now based at Hornbeam Park in Harrogate with packing and distribution outsourced to a warehouse in the south with another in Germany. About 40 per cent of their sales are to Europe and in America last year their annual turnover was £14.3m, which is why Trump and Brexit are playing on their minds.
As well as selling to the domestic market, their lights are also used by Kensington Palace, local authorities and upmarket shops such as Ralph Lauren. Selfridges use them to decorate their stores and the bulbs that brighten up The Stray in Harrogate are also from Lights4Fun.
The Stray lights are nine years old and still going strong thanks to the quality.
“We always use copper wires unlike the cheap lights, which have inferior components. Our lights last a long time and they have a two-year guarantee so customers aren’t continually coming back for more, which means that we have to work very hard to get new customers,” says Jo, who adds that fairy lights aren’t a necessity, they are an emotional purchase and the majority of buyers are women.
The weather also plays a part. When snow falls, orders for lights, lanterns and electric candles rocket.
Lights4Fun, which gives five per cent its profits to charity, has more than 800 different products all designed in-house and made by hand by a trusted, and ethical, manufacturer in the Far East.
It stocks lights for every occasion but the festive season is the most popular time to buy. In the eight weeks up to Christmas Day, it averages 55,000 orders a day. Among the best sellers for outdoors this festive season are the illuminated garden figurines, stars and trees that are either plug-in or battery operated with timers. The trend indoors is for microlights and lots of them as there is “a move away from bigger bulbs”. Neon-look lights, pre-lit domes and garlands are also popular.
Jo, 54, and Tim, 59, also forecast a boom in solar lights next summer thanks to millennials concerned about the environment. “There are a lot of badly-made lights so that’s part of the problem, but we are excited because the technology is improving,” says Jo. She doesn’t have the answer to the oft-asked question of whether Christmas tree lights should be white or coloured? There is some snobbery around this as coloured are often seen as non-U (not upper class) by those who like to keep up appearances.
“I can only say that warm white are our best-sellers and I use them on our tree. As for how many, our golden rule is 100 bulbs or five metres of lights per two ft of Christmas tree. So for a six ft tree we recommend 300 bulbs which is 15 metres long,” says Jo, who is looking forward to Christmas with her family.
She and Tim have five grown-up children between them. “It’s open house and we always have a supply of homemade sausage rolls,” she says.
“It’s very traditional. We have a real tree from the Horticap shop in Harrogate, which provides adults with learning disabilities training in horticulture and is a brilliant organisation.
“We decorate it with baubles collected over the years, including some made by the children when they were little. It’s not a fashion statement but it’s full of memories.”