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White Christmas

Once upon a time, the lights shone in many colors. Now, the difference is clear.

Email|Print| Text size + By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2007

The march of the white lights began seven years ago.

Down Beacon Hill on the one side and along Back Bay's Comm. Ave. mall on the other they came, right onto Boston Common, once the province of long strands of reds, blues, greens, and other colored lights. Now, except for the 45-foot Christmas tree itself, white lights are everywhere on the Common during the holiday season, just like almost all of the lights arrayed in adjoining Beacon Hill and Back Bay.

Not that the city is allowing a total whiteout this year: Mary Hines, a spokeswoman for the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, says it has mixed in, among the Common's 80 decorated trees, six with multihued lights.

Still, though, in the great debate - colored lights or white? - that has played out in many a household over the last decade, it's a clear case of white lights triumphant in this neck of the urban woods.

District 8 Councilor Michael Ross says he likes white lights, which he calls "picturesque and less chintzy" than the colored variety.

"The old display added to the 'Disneyfication' of the area," he says. Beacon Hill "is a historic neighborhood and the white lights are more tasteful."

From where he sits on the northeast edge of the Common, the colorless lights look pretty good to the Rev. Daniel Harrell, associate minister of the Park Street Church. "The white lights are a welcome improvement over the odd Christmas blue that used to color the trees," he says.

Another longtime neighbor, however, likes his lights multicolored, thank you. Tom Kershaw, owner of the Hampshire House restaurant on Beacon Street, overlooking the Public Garden, says he saw more smiling faces - indeed, more people walking on the Common during the holidays - when colored lights decorated the trees along the adjoining Tremont, Boylston, Charles, Beacon and Park streets.

"I'm a colors guy. It's more festive and appeals more to the kids," says Kershaw, who helped raise $35,000 to save the Common display in 1981, when budget cuts threatened to shut off the lights altogether.

While the displays of lights on the Common date back about 60 years, according to Hines, the tradition of lighting the Public Garden near its famous pedestrian bridge is about 10 years old. The Commonwealth Avenue Mall was first lighted in 1999, city officials say.

The city covers the $80,000 cost of the Common lights; the Friends of the Public Garden pay for lights in that area, and the $85,000 cost of the Commonwealth Mall lights is raised through private donations, with the Back Bay Association acting as the fiscal agent. And in all of those areas, white lights clearly reign.

Hines says the decision to switch to the all-white lights came in 2000, after discussions among Parks Department administrators.

"We did it on a trial basis at the time to see what the feedback would be," says Hines. "It was positive. People said, 'We like the new lights.' "

Hines says the brightness of the white lights has another benefit: It adds an extra element of safety, illuminating some areas of the Common that would otherwise be dark.

Ross says his Back Bay and Beacon Hill constituents lean to white lights. "They're both historic preservation neighborhoods, and they tend to favor the Currier & Ives look over the Las Vegas Strip," he says.

White bulbs also hold sway in the city's outdoor shopping meccas - Faneuil Hall, Newbury and Boylston streets. You can see old-school colored lights, though, on several of Downtown Crossing's streets and on the Macy's Christmas tree.

But could colored lights be so out they're actually veering back in again?

Jamie McGrath, owner of Braintree-based CNM Electric, has won the bid to string the lights on the Common for about 16 of the last 20 years, and first did the job in 1981. His crew starts stringing the Common lights - which come in huge, 1,000-foot rolls - in late October.

He remembers when only the Governor's Walk by the State House was decorated with white. But he recalls when the tide turned. "It was about 2000, 2001, when people started to go all-white," he says. "Now it's starting to swing back to colored."

The city of Waltham, for instance, prefers all colored lights, McGrath says. "I remember when I ran out of colored lights and used white. They didn't like it. 'We want all colored,' they said. 'We don't want white.' "

Paul Murphy, who has worked in his family's business, M. Steinert & Sons, the Boylston Street piano store on the south side of the Common, for 38 years, says it used to have colored lights in the windows, but switched to white a few years back. He also prefers the white lights on the Common.

"I think it's part of the whole Victorian look of the neighborhood," he says.

Whatever the colors hanging in the trees, though, Murphy loves to look out onto the Common when it snows - as it did last Monday - and see the effect the display has on passersby.

"I think it warms people up and brightens their spirits."

Rich Fahey can be reached at faheywrite@yahoo.com.

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