The tiny Sydney suburb obsessed with Christmas lights

Christmas lights in Second Street Ashbury.
Pictured is Spiros Tzouganatos who has been decorating his house at Christmas for 32 years on Second Street Ashbury for the first time.
13th December 2016.
Photo: Steven Siewert
Christmas lights in Second Street Ashbury. Pictured is Spiros Tzouganatos who has been decorating his house at Christmas for 32 years on Second Street Ashbury for the first time. 13th December 2016. Photo: Steven Siewert
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For most of the year, secluded Second Street in the inner-west Sydney suburb of Ashbury is calm. City slickers might even call the place dull.

But on a certain day each December, the street collectively flicks the switch to one of the biggest displays of Christmas lights in Greater Sydney, and the crowds come running.

When Domain visited Second Street one evening this week, the footpath was heaving with strolling couples and excited children running to and fro. Cars cruised up and down and cameras flashed.

Locals embrace the spectacle wholeheartedly. The Tzouganatos family has been living on Second Street for 40 years and the extended clan gathers on the front porch most evenings in December to soak up the atmosphere.

"We've been doing this for three decades," says family patriarch Spiros Tzouganatos. "And people come from all over Sydney to see it. We get buses from retirement homes and groups of carollers from across the city."

Tucked-away Ashbury, which sits between Ashfield and Canterbury, is a tightly held slice of suburbia that has long been home to Italian and Greek migrant families. Newcomers to Second Street aren't necessarily aware that they're signing up for a communal Christmas ritual when they move in.

"We didn't realise at all," says Tony Wyllie, who bought a Californian bungalow on Second Street 17 years ago with his wife Sharon. "Funnily enough, the gentleman who used to live next door to us, Lawrence McGinty, and his family started the tradition."

Wyllie adds: "The first year we moved in, Lawrence asked us, 'Do you mind if I put some lights on your house?' We were a bit taken aback but then he explained the tradition. We've built up our own collection of decorations since then."

The Wyllies' first purchase, a glowing white reindeer with a rotating head, still occupies prime position in the yard. These days, the couple's two primary-school-aged children are the chief decorators.

"Lawrence brought a lot of the community together," says Sharon Wyllie. "We got to know a lot of our neighbours by doing this. But there's no competition or peer pressure to participate. If you want to get involved, you can."

Residents say McGinty still plays a key role in the Second Street festivities, even though he has moved away. Each year, he returns and drops a note in Second Street's letterboxes to co-ordinate the switch-on date.

The Christmas tradition has even inspired a spin-off event along Second Street: an epic, American-style Halloween celebration which draws trick or treaters from the neighbouring suburbs.

"We had about $150 worth of chocolate this year and it disappeared in three hours," says Tzouganatos.

According to Michael Garcia, an agent at Belle Property Ashfield, Ashbury's small size and demographic make-up have created a particularly tight-knit atmosphere in the suburb.

"There's about 30 sales a year," he says. "When something comes up for sale, it always gets a lot of attention."

Garcia, who was raised in Ashbury and still lives there, says the suburb was populated by European migrants after WWII and some of the housing stock has not changed hands since. There are no major shops and much of the suburb is protected by a conservation order.

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But the pace of change has quickened in recent years.

"Some of my new neighbours have come from Leichhardt, others from the Northern Beaches," Garcia says.

Sharon Wyllie says the relative affordability of Ashbury and its proximity to the major centres of Ashfield, Burwood and Leichhardt are drawing in young families.

"It's changed a lot in the past couple of years. A couple of our neighbours have passed away. There's a lot more babies in the street now."

Tony Wyllie says: "About five of the houses directly across the road from us have turned over in the past five years - and they're all doing the Christmas lights now."

Residents and agents agree that the recent demographic changes don't seem to have dampened Ashbury's Christmas spirit.

"People in the streets adjoining Second Street are trying to get their share of the attention as well now," says Garcia. "My father lives on the main road and he's planning to decorate this year."

This story The tiny Sydney suburb obsessed with Christmas lights first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.