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Europe must decide how brightly to mark holidays during energy crisis

Should nations send a message of conservation and solidarity, or one of defiance?

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FILE - Local authorities inaugurate the Christmas lighting in the streets of Vigo, Spain, Nov. 19, 2022. In cities across Europe, officials are wrestling with a choice this Christmas. Dim lighting plans to send a message of energy conservation and solidarity with citizens squeezed by both higher energy costs and inflation or let the lights blaze in a message of defiance after two years of pandemic-suppressed Christmas seasons, creating a mood that retailers hope loosen holiday purses. (AP Photo/Lalo R.
FILE - Local authorities inaugurate the Christmas lighting in the streets of Vigo, Spain, Nov. 19, 2022. In cities across Europe, officials are wrestling with a choice this Christmas. Dim lighting plans to send a message of energy conservation and solidarity with citizens squeezed by both higher energy costs and inflation or let the lights blaze in a message of defiance after two years of pandemic-suppressed Christmas seasons, creating a mood that retailers hope loosen holiday purses. (AP Photo/Lalo R. Villar, File) (michael probst/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

VERONA, Italy — Early-season merrymakers sipping mulled wine and shopping for holiday decorations packed the Verona Christmas market for its inaugural weekend. But beyond the wooden market stalls, the Italian city still has not decked out its granite-clad pedestrian streets with twinkling holiday lights as officials debate how bright to make the season during an energy crisis.

In cities across Europe, officials are wrestling with a choice as energy prices have gone up because of Russia’s war in Ukraine: dim Christmas lighting to send a message of energy conservation and solidarity with citizens squeezed by higher utility bills and inflation, while protecting public coffers, or let the lights blaze in a message of defiance after two years of pandemic-suppressed Christmas seasons, illuminating cities with holiday cheer that retailers hope will loosen people’s purse strings.

“If they take away the lights, they might as well turn off Christmas,” said Estrella Puerto, who sells traditional Spanish mantillas, or women’s veils, in a small store in Granada, Spain, and says Christmas decorations draw business.

Fewer lights are sparkling from the centerpiece tree at the famed Strasbourg Christmas market, which attracts 2 million people every year, as the French city seeks to reduce public energy consumption by 10 percent this year.

From Paris to London, city officials are limiting hours of holiday illumination, and many have switched to more energy-efficient LED lights or renewable energy sources. London’s Oxford Street shopping district hopes to cut energy consumption by limiting the illumination of its lights to 3 to 11 p.m. and installing LED bulbs.

“Ecologically speaking, it’s the only real solution,” said Paris resident Marie Breguet, 26, as she strolled the Champs-Elysees, which is being lit up only until 11:45 p.m., instead of 2 a.m. as in Christmases past. “The war and energy squeeze is a reality. No one will be hurt with a little less of the illuminations this year.”

It’s lights out along Budapest’s Andrassy Avenue, often referred to as Hungary’s Champs-Elysees, which officials decided would not be bathed in more than 1.5 miles of white lights, as in years past. Lighting also is being cut back on city landmarks, including bridges over the Danube River.

“Saving on decorative lighting is about the fact that we are living in times when we need every drop of energy,” said Budapest’s deputy mayor, Ambrus Kiss.

He doesn’t think economizing on lighting will dissuade tourists from coming to the city, which holds two Christmas markets that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.

“I think it’s an overblown debate,” he said.

The crisis, largely spurred by Russia cutting off most natural gas to Europe, is sparking innovation. In the Italian mountain town of Borno, in Lombardy, cyclists on stationary bikes will provide power to the town’s Christmas tree by fueling batteries with kinetic energy. Anyone can hop on, and the faster they pedal, the brighter the lights. No holiday lighting will be put up elsewhere in town to raise awareness about energy conservation, officials said.

After two Christmases under COVID restrictions, some are calling “bah humbug” on conservation efforts.

“It’s not Christmas all year round,” said Parisian Alice Betout, 39. “Why can’t we just enjoy the festive season as normal, and do the (energy) savings the rest of the year?”

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