Merry and Bright

Brilliant Festive Holiday Displays

Story by Karen Tinsley
Photography by Michael Pietrangelo

It’s a timeless tradition that colours many a fond childhood memory: piling into the car on Christmas Eve to take in all the splendour of lights twinkling in the snow; coming home to steaming mugs of cocoa, sitting around the tree in p.j.’s, singing carols and maybe opening just one present. 

When did the practice of putting up holiday lights begin?

Before the advent of electricity, people lit candles on their Christmas trees. When Queen Victoria’s German-born husband Prince Albert brought this tradition to England, a magazine published an illustration of the royal family gathered around their towering, flickering evergreen. Then an American magazine republished the illustration and the practice gained traction—lo and behold—lit Christmas trees became all the rage. 

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. A few years later, Edward Johnson—the vice president of Edison’s General Electric company—had a brilliant idea. After stringing different coloured bulbs together, wrapping them around his Christmas tree and attaching it to a rotating base (powered by electricity of course), Johnson positioned it in the street-facing window of his Fifth Avenue, New York City townhouse. He knew in this highly trafficked area; many passersby would stop and stare. 

One of those passersby was a visiting reporter from The Detroit Post and Tribune, who wrote: “Last evening I walked over beyond Fifth Avenue and there, at the rear of the beautiful parlors in Johnson’s home was a large, most picturesque Christmas tree, brilliantly lit with white, red and blue globes, each about the size of a walnut and encased in dainty glass eggs—producing a continuous twinkling of dancing colors.”

In 1895, U.S. President Grover Cleveland had a huge Christmas tree—with electric lights—put up in the White House to please his young daughters. Just as the illustration of Queen Victoria and her family gathered around their Christmas tree had made waves, a nationally published newspaper photo of the White House tree helped spread the practice of decorating Christmas trees with electric lights. 

This was a significant occurrence, because the general public was still wary of electric lights—even though candle-lit Christmas trees posed a much greater risk of catching fire!

Plus, decorative electric lights were out of reach for all but the wealthy. General Electric’s first Christmas light kits, cost $12.00 for a single strand—the equivalent of $300 in today’s dollars! 

Fast forward to today, when hundreds of spectacular holiday light displays are starting to pop-up all over Windsor and Essex County. Last year, we took our own evening drive to discover some of the best.  

Star of Royal Beauty Bright   

This East Windsor display has something for everyone.

Tony and his wife have been creating stunning holiday light displays for 15 years. “We started out small, but we’ve added to our display every year, and every year is different,” he says proudly.

“We now have four young grandchildren, who can’t wait until they’re old enough to help their Grandpa put them up,” Tony laughs.  

Tony tricks up his house for Hallowe’en on just as grand of a scale. 

“I try to come up with something new or different each year,” he adds. “This year, for example, there will be an angel on top of the house instead of a Christmas star.” 

What inspires Tony year after year?

“I do it because I like how it makes me feel. I do it for the joy it brings to children and adults alike. Especially the way things have been the past couple of years because of COVID. This is something I can do that makes me, my family and other people

Climbing, Swinging and Sliding into Christmas! 

Mark designs and builds playgrounds for a living, “so my theme was kind of a no-brainer. I also admit that I love the movie Frozen just as much as my daughter does, so putting Olaf in the swing was also a no-brainer. Last year, I just wanted to do something creative and fun for Christmas, since so many other things were altered or just cancelled altogether.”

LaSalle Luminescence 

Four adults and five days transformed this home into a seasonal showpiece.

When Joe and his family moved into their LaSalle home 20 years ago, they too, “started out small” with their outdoor holiday light display. “But each year, we’d just add a bit more, the next year a bit more, and now here we are today!” he laughs. It takes Joe, his wife and two sons “one whole weekend and a few days” to create and complete their award-winning magic. 

Joe says they were particularly inspired last year because COVID social distancing restrictions meant pulling the plug on Bright Lights Windsor, as well as many other festive gatherings. “It’s a family tradition for us, and we all love it. It’s how we help make the season bright for everyone.” 

Walking in a Winter Wonderland! 

A festive display entirely comprised of non-LED mini-lights.

In 2019, Kim and Annette’s magnificent Amherstburg home was one of the designated stops on the Annual Holiday House Tour—a self-guided stroll inside some of the town’s most breathtaking private residences and historic buildings—all spiffed for the season by professional local decorators.

Annette says, “We’ve always gone all out on holiday décor in every room of our home—putting up several Christmas trees, wreaths and special keepsakes. But seeing what the decorators did was really something special! We were just thrilled—especially when the tour organizer told us we could keep the decorations for the duration of the holidays.”

The couple bought the home in 2000 and Kim, an electrician by trade, recalls, “We got to know the previous owner quite well and learned that lighting up the house for Christmas had been happening since her late husband built the home in the 1950’s. We’re proud and happy to continue the tradition. Just another reason why we love it here!”

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