Christmas already stirs widespread interest in bright lights and the North Pole, so it's a natural time to revisit the year's best auroras. They're like Mother Nature's Christmas lights, except they can shine all year without annoying the neighbors.

Of course, their neighborhoods are also relatively sparse — most auroras occur within several hundred miles of the North Pole (aurora borealis) or South Pole (aurora australis), meaning some of Earth's most amazing visual effects are in some of its least populated places.

2011 wasn't like most years, though. An 11-year solar cycle that governs sunspot activity has recently shifted into its more potent phase, gearing up for an expected peak sometime in 2013. That not only boosted auroras near the poles this year, but even sent a few cascading into mid-latitude regions. In late October, for example, a major solar flare generated visible aurora borealis displays as far south as Atlanta.

Even better performances may be on the horizon in 2012, although some scientists predict a rare "hibernation" of sunspots next year despite the solar cycle. For now, at least, here are seven of the best auroras that were caught on film in 2011:

Finnish Lapland

This time-lapse video was filmed in early 2011 as part of a tourism promotion for Finland's Lapland region, and it makes a pretty compelling case:

International Space Station

The crews of ISS missions 28 and 29 used a low-light 4K camera to take the photos in this time-lapse compilation, offering a bird's-eye view of aurora borealis and australis:

Kirkenes, Norway

In March, photographer Terje Sørgjerd spent a week in remote northeastern Norway to capture the stunning images in this time-lapse sequence:

Perry Lake, Kansas

It would be easy to assume you aren't in Kansas anymore upon seeing this, but it was part of the widespread aurora borealis that stretched deep into the U.S. on Oct. 24 — even into Kansas. Photographer Stephen Locke filmed it over Perry Lake:

Jökulsárlón, Iceland

Released in April as the trailer for an upcoming film about South Iceland, this time-lapse clip features dazzling northern lights over the Jökulsárlón glacial lake:

Martin, Michigan

It may not be quite as weird as seeing northern lights in Kansas, but southwestern Michigan isn't accustomed to scenes like this, either. The time-lapse montage was also recorded during the Oct. 24 aurora storms:

Murmansk, Russia

This final video, filmed in early 2011 by photographer Valentine Zhiganov, takes place in Russia's northwestern Murmansk region, located near the Barents Sea:

Happy holidays!

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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Holiday in lights: The best auroras of 2011
Thanks to wild geomagnetic storms, Earth has enjoyed unusually vibrant displays of aurora borealis and australis this year.