In the past year and a half, for no particular reason, I have found myself accosted more than ever with unbidden knowledge of the hobbies of others.
First it was Animal Crossing, a host of talking animals beckoning me to a desert island, like modern-day sirens. Then came sourdough bread, revealing a world beyond Wonder. Now, like a moth drawn to a porchlight, I find myself puzzled, yet taken in by a venerable seasonal pastime: putting up lots and lots of Christmas lights on one’s house and lawn.
I fondly remember walking, skipping, sitting in the car to escape the cold on Candy Cane Lane as a kid, the houses of 148th Street decked with beaming Santas. In taking the measure of Edmonton’s lights scene today, though, I’ve learned that the lane is hardly the whole neighbourhood: Vibrant light displays are found, for example, on Summerside’s Grande Boulevard, at a recreated “Griswold House” in Stony Plain, and on an acreage in Southview Ridge (north of Spruce Grove). Wes Schultz, who runs the Facebook page Edmonton Area Christmas Lights, maintains a map of lit-up houses in and around the city. In 2020, it featured a staggering 150 locations.
With so many of our neighbours winding wires round their walls, the uninitiated, like me, have got to ask why they do it. What lights the spark and keeps it alive? Schultz says people often start putting up Christmas lights as a family activity, sometimes inspired by their own childhood experiences — from there, t hough, it snowballs. “There is 100 per cent that competitive thing,” he says. “People will start off with a little bit, a little bit more, and it becomes almost an addiction. Because you watch people, and it’s like, this year they have so much, and next year they almost have to better it.”
And better it they do: The Griswold house of 63 Briarwood Point is faithful to its source text in both substance and spirit, featuring replicas of the RV and Cousin Eddie from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation — and, with 33,800 lights, embodying the brightness, the bigness, the boldness, that Clark Griswold prizes in the film (no word on the condition of the septic tank). “It’s almost sensory overload,” Schultz says with a chuckle. “But the purpose of it is just that.” Christmas at Bob’s (7421 108th St.) boasts polar bears, flamingos and gingerbread men, all united by 150,000 lights and a great deal of Christmas spirit. Christmas in Edmonton, a display at 9532 167th St. with its own Facebook group, stars a bright face in the window that lip syncs to Christmas songs played over an FM radio channel. Some tech-savvy display-makers have seized onto new technologies to realize creative innovations: Santa projected onto a window, lights programmed via software to sync with music. “And I think those are the ones who are addicted!” Schultz adds with a laugh.
Their festive fervour notwithstanding, the lights enthusiasts (light heads? lightbulbs?) are a “social bunch,” says Schultz, affable folks who take pleasure in seeing the reactions of visitors — mainly seniors and young families — and talking with them about their work. “People are just excited to show what they’ve done, and to show how well they’ve done it,” Schultz explains. Last year, for instance, a resident of 4220 124th Ave. — a local lightbulb legend — happily told Schultz to “wait till next year, wait till next year” as he showed him around his front and backyard. Beyond the personal pride and social joy, there’s the charity: Edmonton Food Bank says the Christmas lights circuit, specifically Candy Cane Lane, is a huge draw for donations and can bring in as much as 30,000 kilograms of food.
But with such extravagant displays, surely it’s just rich people who make it onto the map? (Or so says the frosty cynic within me as he melts in the glow of a 1,200-watt baby Jesus.) No, actually, says Schultz. While some major displays are in affluent areas, display-makers often seem to find lights at garage sales or make their own structures. Because they reuse their arsenals of lights over many years, building up a display takes a modest annual investment, say $50-$100 a year. Plus, access to LEDs has made running a light show more affordable than in the days of incandescents. Displays are put up by people of all ages, and mounting them is often a family or neighbourhood affair. “It’s not just one person now,” Schultz says. “You can tell that community spirit’s there, because they all get together and they’re helping each other put their lights up.”
It’s not only scrappy private citizens, of course: Various community groups, from the University of Alberta to the Valley Zoo, put up lights of their own. But, in the past year and a half, for no particular reason, their public programming has been as up in the air as Dasher and Donner. The Old Strathcona Business Association, for example, had to cancel 2020’s “Winter Whyte Light Up,” the kickoff to its holiday season. The lights remained, though, and rightly so. “There’s something about twinkly lights in the winter that makes us feel warm and fuzzy,” says Cherie Klassen, executive director of the OSBA. “It feels like a little part of home, and takes away a little bit of that darkness in our long nights, and maybe helps us forget how cold it gets.” Last winter and this one, for — well, fine, for a particular reason — we may have even more we wish to forget.
The lights may not let us forget all that, but they do bring families and neighbourhoods together. Schultz tells me that lights displays actually enjoyed a boom in 2020, since families could enjoy them from inside the car, or outside but in small groups. Edmonton Area Christmas Lights grew dramatically last year; as of this autumn, Schultz’s online map has racked up over 362,000 views. “When it’s dark, it’s dark, but one candle brings that light. And that’s all you need… it gives you perspective; it gives you a direction,” Schultz says. “[You can] give somebody a reason to go wow, you know, smile, or to kind of feel good.” Now, I think, this is a hobby I can understand.
The origin story of Schultz’s Facebook page tells us what these lights displays are truly all about. “My dad really liked Christmas lights,” Schultz recounts. In 2015, Schultz’s father was living in a seniors’ home and suffering from dementia. “I always wanted to take him places [but] we wanted a place to go to without driving him around endlessly.” Schultz couldn’t find a list of local lights online, so he started compiling his own and eventually posted it on his new page. His father has since passed away. But, in recent years, Schultz has enjoyed putting up his own display (a modest one, though: “I’m not quite as addicted to it”), and visiting others with his mother. Schultz’s grandchildren love Christmas lights, too. The light is spreading, he finds, as neighbours follow the lead of existing lights displays, adding to the brightness with decorations large and small. “You don’t have to be elaborate, you don’t have to be fancy [to] throw that spirit out to everybody,” Schultz says. “And it spreads. It’s amazing how much it spreads.