From my window I can see the narrow house across the street decorated with a single strand of icicle lights loosely hung from the eave. One at a time, the icicles “drip” with light. It’s slow and melancholy, the visual equivalent of one of those sad Christmas carols about hardship or longing.
It’s kitsch, but I love it and look each evening to see if they have turned it on. I don’t know them, but I know they’re there, and that they’re offering something back to Toronto.
As the nights get longer we feel compelled to fight against the darkness with light. As late November rolls into December, Christmas lights begin to appear on porches and in windows like warm little flames. Never mind the shops that started decorating too early; the domestic displays are signs of life and individual acts of creativity.
There are hundreds of thousands of amateur lighting designers in action across the city whose decisions have determined how our streets look. Are the lights clipped to the eaves in a perfectly straight line like a laser beam of festive cheer, or do they hang from hooks, crooked and ever so slightly haphazard, like a lovable person who’s always in slight disarray?
There are folks who take this job very seriously and go all out, like the wee house with its postage stamp lawn on Brock Ave., two blocks south of Dundas St., that’s entirely covered in Christmas ornamentation. Lights, wreaths, Santas, snowmen, bells, polar bears and an entire menagerie of other electrified animals and characters. I think they must have a second house to store it all in and their hydrometer must spin like a top.
Another house by the corner of Indian Grove and Glenlake Ave. in the Junction neighbourhood is covered in LED lights that are programmed with elaborate patterns worthy of a discotheque. There’s even a sign out front with an FM radio frequency so you can tune in to hear an accompanying soundtrack.
A few blocks east along Glenlake Ave. at Dorval Rd., a large house is covered in lights and the yard even includes a recreated Christmas tree lot, as if their lawn is a stage for a Christmas pantomime.
These are the superstars that get all the attention and Instagram snaps, but don’t overlook the humbler displays. I’m particular fond of the single string of lights that might run down a handrail and out onto a bush, or a window lit up with blinking lights on the third floor of a house, or a balcony shining high in the sky. All of them are public gestures.
For those driving at night on Hwy. 401 away from Toronto for the holidays, perhaps while it’s snowing, a house lit up in the countryside is a welcome sign, too, on a lonely drive.
When we were young and being transported in the back seat of our parents’ car around Windsor, Ont., my sister and I would rate the displays. “There’s a 6” or “That’s a 10.” I still do that in my head, though I’m more generous with my ratings.
Living in Toronto, I see things mostly on foot now. Speeding by in a car it’s a bit of a blur: a highlighted roofline, a sense of depth if there are lights on trees around a yard, and perhaps a glimpse of those ever-present inflatables that are around today.
On foot you see all the finer details you might otherwise miss. You can also hear the whirl of fans from the inflatables, perhaps breaking the winter wonderland illusion ever so slightly. There are views inside, too, as curtains are left parted to show off a decorated tree, so our gaze is invited into homes for a moment.
Technology has changed things. Now you can buy lights you can control with an app on your phone. There are those ready-made icicle strands that go up fast, and light nettings you can instantly wrap a tree with.
Maybe I’m nostalgic for my own childhood Christmas displays, but the houses that use the simplest materials, lights on a string, get the highest ratings in my mind. They’re artisanal, handmade rather than simply purchased. Like the basic Lego sets that were little more than multicoloured bricks, they’re the ones that allow for the most creative freedom.
Some people hire cherry pickers to do entire trees, while others will put lights just where they can reach. Much respect to those who went up precarious ladders to reach the highest peaks on their houses. All of it, even those inflatables, is appreciated.
The city is at its brightest this week, especially on Christmas Eve. Soon we’ll plunge into the January darkness, so don’t rush to take down your lights. If they’re efficient LEDs, maybe keep them up a little too long.
It’s your gift to the city.
Shawn Micallef is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @shawnmicallef