Merry and bright Transforming Winnipeg into a twinkly winter wonderland is a year-round job
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It’s -3 C on a cloudy Wednesday morning, mild by Manitoba standards, and the pavements of Higgins Avenue and Main Street are thronging with pedestrians.
At a glance
• The festival lighting installation takes approximately 12 days, plus testing and repairs
• This year the poles went up on Oct. 22 and the first lights were installed on Oct. 31.
• There are more than 700 aluminum-framed fixtures fitted out with LED rope lights.
•The festival lighting installation takes approximately 12 days, plus testing and repairs
•This year the poles went up on Oct. 22 and the first lights were installed on Oct. 31.
•There are more than 700 aluminum-framed fixtures fitted out with LED rope lights.
• The Christmas lights are synchronized to come on with the street lighting and the power consumption from when they are switched on (often after Remembrance Day) to when they are taken down in January is 29 kw.
• The festive lighting branch is a city-budgeted department. The branch receives a remittance from Manitoba Hydro after certain costs have been offset. The 2021 expenditures for the festive lighting branch after recoveries was just over $38,000
Source: Office of the Director, Public Works
Contractor Glynn Thomas directs people to walk around a truck as its jointed arm reaches six metres into the sky.
His colleague Dustin Kipling, safely ensconced in its bucket, clutches an aluminium-framed snowflake studded with LED lights. The arm extends towards an existing light pole and Kipling drills the snowflake onto its post.
Pedestrians pay heed to Thomas’s directions; no one wants to be knocked down by a super-sized snowflake.
On the street, City of Winnipeg electrician Kevin Bonds heads towards the back of his truck, where a rack hung with a two dozen or more LED snowflakes await, ready to be mounted.
Each rack is neatly labelled so that when the crew members move out from their Pacific Avenue workshop, they know exactly where these lights need to be hung.
“Everything on here is set up to go on a specific city block, so they (the crew) don’t just take 400 stars and go throw them out. They are prebuilt, so they know, for instance, on Hargrave it’s six stars, a dozen snowflakes and 12 crescent piles,” says Derek Resch, supervisor of public operations.
Resch is keeping a watchful eye on the cars parked illegally on the street. They’re not meant to be parked there today and he’s weighing up whether to call the tow truck. It’s a pet peeve. These acts of disobedience can throw a wrench into the city’s carefully calculated festive lighting timetable.
“We have to put in lane closures to make sure the parking is sorted so that when they get down here they are not fighting cars. And they still have to fight around parked cars; that’s one of the biggest things that slows them down,” Resch explains.
Luckily for the car owners, no towing happens today. The crew has managed to navigate around the vehicles and one section of the street is now bedecked with festive lights.
The crew is on track to hit its deadline. All 750 light fixtures have to be put up before the Christmas tree is assembled in front of city hall on Thursday.
Every year come late October the crew sets off to deck the streets starting at Portage Avenue from Sherbrook Street to Main Street and between Higgins Avenue and Assiniboine Avenue along Main.
First, they install the poles for all the median displays, a job that takes a weekend. During the week, the same crew goes out to affix the LED lighting on existing streetlight poles. Work on the median displays resumes on weekends; in addition to the 750 streetside fixtures — which include everything from starbursts and snowflakes to crescents and curlicues — there are also five median displays that need to be assembled on location and tested.
Resch and Bonds oversee the operation, which stretches over approximately 7.5 kilometres. The star of the show is the Santa median display, more than 45 metres long, of the jolly fellow on his sleigh, complete with presents and reindeer, strung up across 15 poles.
It’s a job that requires a high level of organization, although it helps that the crew adheres to the same installation pattern every year. For now there are no plans to deviate from the tried and tested ways.
While the lights only emerge seasonally, it’s a year-round job for everyone involved.
“I don’t ever stop thinking about Christmas,” Resch says. “It’s one of the most visible parts of my job and probably the thing most Winnipeggers care about.”
It’s unusual for him to be out with the crew; he’s usually in the office tending to other city matters, although at this time of year, most of it is very much Xmas-based.
After eight years in the job it can get repetitive, he admits, but the shine still hasn’t worn off.
“I remember as a kid, my grandfather used to work at Eaton’s downtown. We would go down there and they would have Santa’s Village (window display). As a kid, just that magic of going downtown, the lights and all the setup would really get you in the spirit.
“I take that to heart, even as a grown-up, despite the fact I see it all the time. For Winnipeggers, it’s the start to the holiday season and it gets them excited.”
The scene Resch paints is in stark contrast to the one at Higgins and Main, where the denizens of downtown mostly ignore the crew.
Across the street, a line snakes towards Main Street Project community health centre. The breeze has a bite to it, bringing with it the threat of colder and harsher days. The streets are not a hospitable place at the best of times, but with winter nipping at their heels, there is a sense of urgency to seek secure accommodation.
We are standing in one of the city’s most deprived areas and it’s impossible not to draw parallels between the origin story of Christmas — people seeking shelter — and the reality around us.
It’s a scene that, to this day, continues to play out in its many guises.
A woman swears as she swerves past a car zooming by, trying to beat the lights before they change. Traffic weaves around Bonds’ truck, the cones providing ample warning to oncoming vehicles.
Everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere, as is the festive light crew.
Thomas lowers the arm of the truck and Kipling clambers out, his eyes hidden behind dark shades despite the muted nature of the day. He’s been doing this job for 10 years now and, like Thomas, he too loves it.
The crew is a well-oiled machine, and everything moves like clockwork.
Each day starts at 8.30 a.m. where they meet at Pacific Avenue before setting off to the day’s location; work on the street can only start at 9 a.m.
The contractors — City of Winnipeg and Manitoba Hydro have a joint contract with MyTec, which employs Kipling and Thomas — move out in their vehicle with Bonds following closely behind in his truck.
“My job is a year-round but it’s filled with a different lights around the city, not just festive lighting,” Bonds says. Once they’re at their destination Bonds parks his truck a few metres behind the MyTec vehicle.
“I started doing this in March 2020 and this is my third setup,” Bonds says over the noise of the traffic whooshing by.
“During the festive season, my job is making sure the truck is blocking traffic so that the cars go around well before they get to where the guys are working,” he says. “I also have to make sure that the crew get the lights in the right order and in the right spot.”
Christmas decorations were originally pagan symbols, co-opted by the Roman Catholic Church to make the Christian holiday familiar to those who had previously celebrated winter solstice festivals.
In 1880, Thomas Edison invented what is considered the world’s first Christmas lights; a strand of electric bulbs that were strung outside of his Menlo Park laboratory in New Jersey. Ten years later, the lights were mass produced and displayed at department stores.
While it is not known when exactly the tradition of Christmas lights on North American city streets started, we do know the first public Christmas tree appeared in Winnipeg in 1915 as a fundraising effort during the First World War.
The city’s tradition of festive lights began much later, when in 1957, mayor Stephen Juba integrated Christmas tree lighting with light displays string through downtown.
“Years ago they would have used actual lightbulbs,” Resch says. “The old-school lights would be festooned lighting and it would be like the ones at your house; if one burned out, it killed the chain so there was that problem. The city made the conversion to LED, which used far less power. With LED we can identify which parts of the rope lighting are bad and just replace that.”
Once the crew has finished a section of a street, tests are done first thing in the morning or late at night. Once they know which ones don’t work, the crew members go back throughout the day and replace the ones that have failed to light up.
The decorations stay up until the second week of January, when they are taken back to the shop for repairs. Resch says the team usually takes a week off to “give our minds a break” before starting on the task.
“They have to clean everything first, because the lights will have a high level of road salt. Then they will test everything and mark what needs to be repaired. The goal is to have everything repaired by June, and then the lights go into storage.”
The summer months are a brief respite from all things Christmas. But as soon as September winds its way around, it’s back to business for the crew.
Resch says he doesn’t put up any lights at home “other than those little candy canes which you can stick in the ground. I help my parents with their decorations; I get enough Christmas with this job,” he says with a laugh.
But he and his crew take this part of the job very seriously, even if it may seem frivolous to some. The effect it had on people’s spirits became especially evident in the first year of the pandemic, Resch says.
“We kept the lights on for longer to keep people’s spirits up. Because of the lockdown and all the challenges, there were a lot of people who were really looking forward to having the lights on,” he says.
“There are always people who go down and take the drive downtown to look at the lights. The best part of overseeing the Christmas lights is knowing that the work of my staff is providing holiday joy to thousands of Winnipeggers.”
AV Kitching is an arts and life writer at the Free Press.
Updated on Tuesday, November 15, 2022 9:23 AM CST: Corrects reference to Manitoba Hydro