Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sign of the (yule) times

Can't have Christmas without 'Humbug'

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It's a Winnipeg Christmas landmark, a holiday icon almost everyone in this city has ogled at one time or another.

It's warmed the cockles of my festive little heart every Christmas for as far back as I can remember.

If you've ever driven along Route 90 at this time of year, just north of the Portage Avenue overpass, near the southwest corner of Ness Avenue and Century Street, then you've seen it, too.

All you have to do is glance up at the night sky and there it is, on a balcony on the 11th floor of 299 Queen St.

It's a sign, written with twinkling red Christmas lights in letters two-feet high and 18-inches wide that's visible for miles, proudly proclaiming the following joyful holiday greeting: "HUMBUG"

It's not really Christmas for me until I spot the "Humbug" sign. I love the way it good naturedly tweaks the nose of the typical festive greetings we are bombarded with at this chaotic time of year.

For decades, whenever I drove by it, I formed the following thought: "Ha ha ha!" But this year, as a crusading journalist, I had a deeper thought: "Who the (bad word) puts this sign up, and why?"

And so, when I drove by it this week, I veered into the block's parking lot, wandered into the lobby and began asking hard-hitting journalistic questions. The first person I met was Carole Finlayson who has lived in the "Humbug Block" for years and sees the sign as a holiday highlight.

"It's one of my favourite things about Christmas -- Bah, Humbug!" Carole said, promising to get the resident who puts the sign up to call me. "He's very nice," she said. "Whether he likes Christmas or not, I don't know."

That's how, Tuesday morning, I found myself parked on the couch of Don Guzda, a 58-year-old sheet-metal worker, and enjoying the awesome view of Polo Park and Garbage Hill from his 11th-floor balcony. What you need to know is that Don likes Christmas, but he's a shy person, so it took a bit of friendly arm-twisting before he agreed to let me put his name in the newspaper. "I'm a quiet person," Don said. "I don't want to draw attention to myself, but I'm glad the sign makes people happy."

The last thing Don expected, when he moved into the block in 1998, was that he'd inherit a role in a Winnipeg Christmas tradition. It turns out the "Humbug" sign was built, for fun, by a kindly resident named Sid Farmer, near the end of the '70s.

"When they were moving Sid out he wanted the Humbug sign to stay right here where he built it," Don explained. "The caretakers who managed the block had it for about a year and when they moved out, they asked me to take it over.

"They said: 'We want you to keep the sign going.' I said: Why me? And they said: 'Because you're on the top floor and everybody can see it from there!' I said fine, but I didn't think it would be such a big thing."

One year, for reasons he can't recall, he forgot to pull "Humbug" out of storage. And he heard about it. Big time. "The one year I didn't put it up, people were phoning the manager downstairs asking: 'Where's the sign?' And: 'Why isn't the sign up?' It was a big issue."

Added building manager Bo Kaminski: "Every year I get calls from people saying, 'Thanks for putting the Humbug sign up.' This year, I had a call from a lady asking me to tell Don how much she loves it."

Don decided the easiest and best thing would be to put it up every year, so he does. "I'm the keeper of the sign," he declares. "I took on that responsibility. It's just a thing I have to do; that's all there is to it."

Even his co-workers want to lend a hand, sometimes giving him lights to keep "Humbug" glowing bright. He tried using LED lights once, "but you could hardly see it, so I had to go back to the old-style bulbs."

Don isn't a "Humbug" kind of guy. "I like Christmas," he explains, "Everybody should just spend time with their family and friends and be more caring at this time of year."

He knows he'll have to build a new sign soon "because it's getting old and falling apart." Then, a thought occurred to him. "If I ever leave, I'll have to put someone else in charge," he said, then, frowning at me, added: "YOU can do it if you want!"

I wasn't sure how to reply. Then I saw the answer, shining in front of me, spelled out in giant red letters. "HUMBUG" I told Don. And he smiled back, because for some of us, that's what Christmas is all about.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2011 A2

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