Lobethal: the Christmas town

By Ian Kenins 17 December 2010
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Christmas shines brighter than anywhere else in the nation in this otherwise sleepy South Australian hamlet.

WHEN GERMAN-BORN UTE Wacker moved to Adelaide with husband Fred in 1972, she felt hopelessly homesick on her first Christmas. “There was no snow and the house was too hot and I was too hot, so we all sat in our daughter’s little pool to cool off,” she remembers.

But 20 years later the couple found, fell in love with and relocated to a place that truly knows how to switch on the festive spirit. For 11 months of the year, Lobethal is just another tranquil town in the Adelaide Hills.

Each December, however, it puts on a spectacular Yuletide display after dark that earns it a moment in the limelight. The town’s usually quiet, narrow streets become busy night-time thoroughfares as cars full of families and buses brimming with tourists cruise the annual Lights of Lobethal festival.

“Christmas means a lot to me…I couldn’t believe it when we first saw the Christmas lights here. It was really me,” Ute says. Houses, gardens and businesses are set aglow by neon Christmas characters and symbols, and twinkling rows of coloured fairy lights assembled in their thousands.

100,000 Christmas lights in Lobethal

In 2008 Peg and Bill Chatres’s half-hectare property at the top of Ridge Road was illuminated by 100,000 lights and they had to build a circular driveway to cater for tourist traffic. Even their dog’s collar glowed.

The couple has placed electricity cables underground to avoid using kilometres of extension cords. Three bedrooms once occupied by the now grown-up Chatres children have become storage facilities for lights and displays. And when Christmas is over the spirit lingers on, with one room remaining decorated and lit each night of the entire year.

“I’ve always loved Christmas,” explains Peg. “We have people who say it hasn’t felt like Christmas until they see the lights here.” Unfortunately, ill health forced Peg and Bill to tone down their display last year, but they still managed 50,000 lights for the benefit of visiting grandchildren. The standard set by Peg and Bill has been embraced by recent arrivals to town John and Pat Parsons, who last year decorated their Wattle Street home with 80,000 lights.

“Not bad since this was a vacant block two and a half years ago,” John observes proudly. “We won second prize [in 2008]. The $50 prize money paid for a few more lights.” Low-wattage bulbs help to keep electricity consumption under control with most residents estimating their power bills rise by little more than $20-$30 for the Christmas quarter. Stan Hackett, however, remains concerned about any increase to the town’s carbon footprint and chooses another way to contribute.

Instead of lighting up, Stan – a man handy with a jigsaw – prefers to create wooden figures to decorate his lawn. Wife Helen, he says, is the ideas girl: “I do the stencils and cut them out and she paints them. Helen also decides where they go in the yard.” At the opposite end of town stands a modest home in Pioneer Avenue, where Dennis and Jennifer Fitzgerald engage visitors. Each year Dennis dons a Santa outfit and hops aboard passing tourist buses to greet the kids, while Jennifer stays in the yard and hands out Christmas lollies.

Lobethal lights a Christmas must-see

Home to some 1800 people and nestled in a picturesque valley, Lobethal is surrounded by apple and cherry orchards and a growing number of wineries nurtured by rich soil and plentiful rain. The town owes much of its character to a long history of German immigration.

A shipload of Lutheran missionaries – fleeing persecution in Prussia – settled the area in 1842 and later established potato and dairy farms. Lobethal is German for “valley of praise” but during WWI, anti-German sentiment led the South Australian parliament to change the town’s name to Tweedvale. It reverted to Lobethal in 1935 and two years ago a clever graffitist painted a G on all the town signs, in a joke suggesting another more appropriate name: Globethal. 

The town’s decorative lighting began as a simple desire by shopkeepers to brighten the main street during WWII. In 1992 the Lights of Lobethal became a commercially sponsored event, and each year it attracts about 250,000 visitors.

The main street is the venue for the formal proceedings: the opening Lights On ceremony, a pageant, fireworks, carols and a multi-denominational nightly nativity play. All the town’s shops open for business for much of each night throughout the festival. But the lights – the real attraction – are paid for and put up by the locals.

Postcode: 5241 
Residents: 1800
Distance from Adelaide: 38 km
Number of churches: 4
Number of pubs: 2
Name of main street: Main Street
Also in town: The National Costume Museum showcases fashion from 1812 onwards.
Unusual relic: A bell donated to the town’s Lutheran church by the German government several years before WWII required an Act of Parliament to be imported, as it arrived in 1944 when Australia was still at war with Germany.

Source: Australian Geographic, issue 100 (October – December, 2010)