If you think Santa has a lot to plan for Christmas, talk to Esquimalt resident Garfield Ostrander.
Each year for almost 20 years, Ostrander has erected a holiday display so complex that he prepares year-round and starts construction on Labour Day.
From his Rockheights backyard, where the first of his visitors begin streaming in at 6 p.m. nightly, Ostrander says he thinks about the display all the time, whether he’s ordering new pieces from the Internet, fixing others or imagining new layouts.
“I stand out here in the evenings in the summer and I lean against the fence and I think about it,” Ostrander says. “I’m not just doing this for a month in the winter time. I’m planning all summer, all year. By the time I put it all away, it’s almost time to start planning again.”
The display nestled into a well-treed backyard consists of various towering, whirling, twirling inflatables and lights set along a wheelchair-accessible stone path.
The lights number in the thousands, but there are also about 40 illuminated deer, 50 plastic figures, including a Nativity scene, and 40 inflatables, including a new five-metre Santa and two 4.5-metre candy-cane archways.
The second phase of the display is found inside Ostrander’s garage, which for December is converted into a museum of sorts, featuring a miniature Christmas carnival and village that includes thousands of figurines, hundreds of moving displays and a miniature train and carousels.
Some of the items in the miniature world are decades old — fans of the display often donate their Christmas treasures to Ostrander, while others pass on family heirlooms. “This is starting to be like a church in here for some people,” Ostrander says.
The lights on the house at 783 Hutchinson Rd. go up throughout September, while the garage set-up takes at least three weeks in October. Ostrander hits the ground running in November to have his displays set up for opening day Dec. 7.
The whole show, which runs until New Year’s Day, takes an hour to prepare each night, to be ready by 5:30-6 p.m.
The busiest night is Christmas Eve, says Ostrander, who estimates 5,000 to 6,000 people come every season, many of them families and seniors making three to four trips in December. “You see them coming, whole families, three generations in groups, and they’ll wander through for half an hour.”
Powering all the lights, as well as moving and glowing displays, is electricity flowing through 26 dedicated breakers Ostrander had installed outside, separate from his household bill. To run the display costs at least $1,000 just for December, he said
“If I plugged everything in at once, the surge would kill the panel,” he said.
So each night, he methodically plugs in the displays in an order that only he knows, untangling inflatables caught in the guy wires and making sure everything is safe and ready for showtime.
To understand Ostrander’s vision, you need to know that his inspiration comes from Detroit’s Ford Rotunda — a gear-shaped building that was a top tourist attraction in the United States until it burned down in 1962. In 1953, the building put on a display called Christmas Fantasy that was so popular, it saw about six million visitors over the nine years before the fire, according to the Detroit News.
The first year, the display included Donner, Blitzen, Prancer and Dancer along with a 11-metre, 5,400-kilogram Christmas tree, according to the Detroit News, and a centrepiece — Santa’s Workshop with elves building toys on a miniature assembly line, three-dimensional portrayals of the Nativity and more.
In 1958, a 15,000-piece miniature circus highlighted the Fantasy, with a parade, a 10-piece band on a wagon pulled by a 10-horse team, a steam calliope and 800 tiny animals, 30 tents, 435 performers and customers, the paper reported
Ostrander, 62 — a father of three and grandfather of two — was raised in Windsor, Ont., on the Detroit River. “Detroit was our playground.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, no place did Christmas like the city of Detroit, Ostrander said. “That was my Christmas,” he said. “So now I want to create that atmosphere that I felt when I walked into those places.”
A rugged, chain-smoking former shipyard worker who now has his own house-painting business, Ostrander doesn’t wax poetic about his efforts, but there is poetry in what he does for strangers over the holidays every year since 1994.
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