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Lights, Santa, action! Greater Victorians get into the spirit

Childhood will always be the inspiration for the illuminated Nativity scene and elaborate lights decorating the Colwood home of Gary McInnis at Christmas. “Little kids, when they walk by, their eyes absolutely fall out.
Raj Sundher puts up a big seasonal display at his Grosvenor Road home with a new cartoon character every year. This year, it's the Grinch.

Childhood will always be the inspiration for the illuminated Nativity scene and elaborate lights decorating the Colwood home of Gary McInnis at Christmas.

“Little kids, when they walk by, their eyes absolutely fall out. ‘Wow, look at that,’” said McInnis.

The 67-year-old real estate agent said his fixation started in his own childhood, when his father took him to see the well-to-do homes in Abbotsford all lit up for Christmas. “I looked at this whole roof lit up and thought: ‘I’m going to do that some day.’”

In the 1970s, as a new father with his own children, he drove by a home near Beach Drive and was struck by an illuminated Nativity scene. “I vowed then and there if I ever found these particular figures again, I would do my damnedest to make that happen at my house.”

About seven years later, McInnis said, “I walked into Canadian Tire and they were saying: ‘You need us.’”

With his own kids now grown, he said home decorations are about the children who stop at his house at 5566 Promenade Cres. They take in his Santa Claus, candy canes, displays of presents and ornaments. And of course, there is baby Jesus in the stable with Mary, Joseph, the three Wise Men and a shepherd. “You just enjoy immensely the feeling you get when you decorate,” said McInnis. “It’s for the children and other people to enjoy this season.”

Call it hobby, call it obsession, call it the Gateway Drug of the Holiday Season. For those who really take Christmas lights to heart, the effort can be monumental and it never seems to stop. Every year, getting the same holiday buzz requires a bigger dose, or at least another string of lights.

For decades, the biggest draw in Victoria was the 1200 block of Tattersall Drive, nicknamed Candy Cane Lane. Every house was lit up, drawing hundreds of drive-by visitors over the holidays. It lasted until 1999, when Tattersall residents decided to call it quits.

John Bate, now 88 and still living on Tattersall with his wife Marilyn, was the leader of Candy Cane Lane. The Bate display included a giant Frosty, motorized displays, toy soldiers, an ice rink with a Zamboni and 3,000 lights.

He said putting it up took months. To carry the power load required heavy-duty electrical cable. The entire house had to be rewired because the breakers were always tripping. Surprisingly, it didn’t increase the B.C. Hydro bills. “I was amazed it didn’t go up more because the meter was always spinning around like an old 45 [vinyl] record,” said Bate.

When packed away, the Bate displays filled more than 50 boxes. They were stored in the attic, basement and even in the old Memorial Arena, where Bate was manager. At the end, it was all given away.

“It was time,” said Bate. “Some of the neighbours had passed away and others were just getting older.

“As you start to get older you start thinking twice about clambering up on the roof.”

Raj Sundher, 56, a parks worker for the City of Victoria, knows all about clambering on the roof.

Sundher has made cartoon characters the hallmark of decorations at his home at 2820 Grosvenor Rd. near the corner of Cook Street and Cedar Hill Road, adding a new one every year. This year, it’s the Grinch. Characters are painted on plywood and animated to wave and move with motors from old windshield wipers.

Keeping flat, plywood characters in place means carrying more than 30 sandbags up onto the roof. They hold down the cutouts to stop them from flying off into space.

“Everything has to be tied down or weighted,” said Sundher. “You don’t want things falling down or Santa flying through your skylight.”

Over the past two decades, he estimated he has invested more than $10,000 in his displays.

Sundher calls the displays his hobby. His wife and kids, now grown, have always enjoyed the displays, but he’s too meticulous and exacting to accept help.

Like McInnis and Bate, he has won several prizes, but that’s not important to him. What is important is drawing people to have a look. “You want that recognition” said Sundher. “You want people to come by and see it.”

Prizes soon became old hat for Gordon Gillatly, at 7401 Central Saanich Rd., who just kept on winning first place in his neighbourhood.

“I’d won it five years in a row, so they stopped giving out the poinsettias or whatever it was for a prize,” said Gillatly, 78.

The retiree hasn’t stopped, however. His house now has three Santas, one Mrs. Claus, a snowman dad with two snowchildren and a giant sled on the roof overflowing with teddy bears and other toys.

“We’ve always got something added, something different,” said Gillatly. “During the rest of the year, we always seem to find something at a garage sale or other.”

These days, he doesn’t just decorate his own home. His Arizona-wintering neighbour’s house also gets the holiday treatment and he has started on his neighbour on the other side.

Gillatly also decorates for Halloween, Valentine’s Day and, fitting for a retired RCAF member, Remembrance Day.

“But Christmas is the big one,” he said. “And people here seem to appreciate it.”

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