Anyone who’s watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation will remember the scene where Clark Griswold switches on a blinding display of outdoor Christmas lights at his home, nearly draining the city’s electricity supply.
Clark’s obsession with holiday outdoor lighting would not have been out of place in mid-20th century Leaside. For nearly a decade, the town held an annual Christmas lighting competition that captured the attention of homeowners, businesses and even outside onlookers.
Like most North Americans, Leasiders almost certainly decorated their homes with Yuletide lights long before this time. But around 1956, the idea of turning the practice into a contest was introduced. Sponsored by the Leaside Horticultural Society and the Leaside Kiwanis Club, the competition grew and became so popular that by 1961 the number of finalists alone totalled some 60 homes.
Prizes were handed out in several categories, including awards for the best-decorated doorway, house, and religious scene.
The contest’s judges were qualified individuals who lived in the community. In 1964, for instance, both judges were Leaside residents who worked in the display department of Eaton’s department store
Once the winners and runners-up were chosen, their names and addresses were published in the Leaside Advertiser and occasionally in the Toronto Star. Photographs of winning homes were also published – one example was the 1961 winning doorway at 36 Parklea Drive, which appeared on the front page of the January 1962 issue of the Advertiser.
Not to be outdone, Leaside’s business community also got involved – voting in 1960 to spend $3,000 for Christmas lighting on Bayview Avenue. Local churches mounted displays as well. Even the Toronto Hydro substation at Sutherland and Parkhurst was brightly lit. So was the town’s municipal building.
Word soon spread that Leaside was worth seeing during the holidays, attracting onlookers from other parts of Toronto. Chartered buses toured local streets – including in 1957 a group of 170 patients from a downtown hospital.
Unfortunately, the increased popularity also attracted thieves. One resident – a Don Mills police sergeant – reported in 1966 that 40 light bulbs were stolen off the tree on his front lawn. A year earlier, another homeowner, on Randolph Rd., erected a sign sarcastically wishing “Merry Christmas” to hooligans who had taken his outdoor lights.
While people continued to illuminate and decorate the outside of their homes for Christmas, the practice of giving out prizes seems to have faded after 1964. No subsequent mention is made of the awards in either the Leaside Advertiser or the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail. A few years later, area merchants on Bayview also suspended the practice of Christmas lighting.
In both cases, lack of financing was a factor. So, too, perhaps was the impending 1967 merger with East York, which would certainly have greatly expanded the house lighting competition – thereby significantly increasing the cost of administration.
The Yuletide Lighting Contest is long gone. But it left its mark, enhancing a tradition that persists to this day. The result is that Leaside still has some of the most inventive and impressive Christmas displays in Toronto.
Clark Griswold would approve.
This article was guest contributed by Ted DeWelles, Leaside Heritage Preservation Society.