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Behind the lights

A look at the people behind St. Albert's brightest Christmas displays

By: Kevin Ma

  |  Posted: Saturday, Dec 14, 2013 06:00 am

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  • HO HO HO – St. Albert resident Bill Buitenweg is one of several city residents with a flair for Christmas light displays.
    HO HO HO – St. Albert resident Bill Buitenweg is one of several city residents with a flair for Christmas light displays.
    CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette
  • ROCKIN' LIGHTS – Alex Gavinchuk of St. Albert, has fine-tuned his Christmas lights display at his home along Lambert Crescent, complete with a forest of twinkling, lighted trees and The Muppets Red and Green album playing on FM 107.5 that drivers can hear in their cars.
    ROCKIN' LIGHTS – Alex Gavinchuk of St. Albert, has fine-tuned his Christmas lights display at his home along Lambert Crescent, complete with a forest of twinkling, lighted trees and The Muppets Red and Green album playing on FM 107.5 that drivers can hear in their cars.
  • LIGHT MASTERS – St. Albert residents Rein and Jackie Selles, were among the founding participants in the annual Elliot Place Christmas lightup.
    LIGHT MASTERS – St. Albert residents Rein and Jackie Selles, were among the founding participants in the annual Elliot Place Christmas lightup.
  • LIGHTED ARCHES – The 33 arches are the centrepiece of the annual Christmas light display at Elliot Place.
    LIGHTED ARCHES – The 33 arches are the centrepiece of the annual Christmas light display at Elliot Place.

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Bill Buitenweg’s Christmas display is a little bigger than most.

It covers his entire street, for one. Big red bows decorate each of the towering elms in his cul-de-sac on Swallow Crescent, and red-and-white lasers project swirling snowflakes atop the fresh-fallen snow.

Ten little Christmas trees shine in his yard around an artificial apple blossom tree, the blooms of which blaze a brilliant white. Two festive bears relax in an illuminated carriage, as eight hand-painted ceramic reindeer – each a little bit different – haul Santa in his sleigh. Look up, and you’ll see hundreds of transparent snowflakes suspended from fishing wire – Buitenweg had to hand-glue each one.

“This is Santa’s first stop,” Buitenweg says, proudly.

And he created it all to encourage others to give back to their community.

Buitenweg, 51, is one of a handful of city residents who go all out with decorations around Christmas. The displays will attract many visitors but few onlookers will ever meet the people behind them.

A former furniture mover, Buitenweg says he’s decorated his home at 4 Swallow Cres. every Christmas for about the last decade. (Last year, he had 25 little trees on his yard for the 25 days before Christmas.)

He and his wife love to decorate and entertain, Buitenweg explains. The inside of their home is stuffed with trees, Santas and a whole herd of crystal reindeer.

“It’s festive. It brings people into a better place and a better mood,” he says.

The whole display has been in the works since October, Buitenweg says, and will be active from 5 to 10 p.m. until Dec. 25.

The Muppet house

Alex Gavinchuk’s display at 71 Lambert Cres. is also pretty spectacular, although you might think it’s on the fritz at first.

A mechanical designer with Arrow Engineering, Gavinchuk has decked out his roof and yard with 11 artificial trees covered in about a zillion LED lights, all of which seem to flicker, fade, and change colour at random. It’s only once you’ve tuned your car radio to 107.5 FM that you realize all the lights are set to music – specifically, A Green and Red Christmas by The Muppets.

This is the third year that Gavinchuk has held this light show, having gotten the idea from friend Jason Andrew over in Embassy Place. Whereas Andrew runs a high-energy show based around rock and roll and cutting-edge technology, Gavinchuk’s usually features Bing Crosby and discount lights from Superstore.

“I like lights and I like music,” he says, when asked about his hobby, so he decided to put his hobbies together after seeing Andrew’s show (which is also running this winter).

“I like to see other people happy.”

It’s also cheaper than fireworks, he adds, laughing.

Gavinchuk estimates he has about 20,000 lights in his yard.

“I know I’ve got about 11,000 just on the trees,” he says.

He started working on the display after Rock ’n August – he’s head of the St. Albert Cruisers – and had everything done by October. The lights went on earlier this month, and will stay on every night until Jan. 10.

The Elliot Place challenge

The blazing Yuletide constellation that is Elliot Place has been a bright spot in Erin Ridge for almost 15 years now. Known as St. Albert’s Candy Cane Lane, it regularly draws scores of cars each holiday season, and involves months of effort from everyone in the neighbourhood.

And it all started because of booze and a party.

Scott McIntyre, 59, says he was the new kid on the block when he moved to Elliot Place in 2000.

“I was putting my lights up,” he says, and got into a conversation with one of his neighbours on the merits of such illumination.

McIntyre decided to hold a contest, and sent invitations to everyone on the block.

“I guess I’m a social person, and I found it might be a good way to get to know the neighbours.”

The entry fee was a bottle of spirits, and whoever had the best display would get a bunch of free alcohol at a block party he hosted later that month.

Neighbour Rein Selles says he was a reluctant participant at first.

“You have no idea how much I hate doing this!” he recalls saying to McIntyre in that first year (he hates heights, and he was putting lights on his roof).

But the contest got the block talking and co-operating, and pulled everyone together.

“It was the sense of creating something that didn’t exist in St. Albert,” Selles says.

Eventually, Selles says, they ditched the contest and kept the lightup going, even after McIntyre moved to another neighbourhood.

“I think it was the idea that we got to know each other much better that really kept it going.”

Selles says work on the display typically starts in October and wraps up before the snow falls in November. Residents usually chip in for a cherry picker for the roof jobs. There’s no central plan, and everyone’s free to decorate as they like.

The centrepiece of the Elliot Place display is the 33 lit arches along the sidewalk, Selles says, which were introduced about eight years ago.

“It’s the arches that hold everything together.”

This year’s display features an LED star atop a three-storey tall spruce – the star is animated, and seems to radiate rays of light into the night sky. In addition to glowing reindeer, tiny trains, geese, snowmen, pink pigs and polar bears on skis, there’s a stuffed man tangled in a light string and hanging from a roof by his ankle – the victim of an apparent decorating accident.

Elliot Place will be lit from dusk to 10 p.m. until Jan. 1, Selles says.

Giving back

Elliot Place and Swallow Crescent will both be collecting donations for the St. Albert Food Bank this month.

Selles says he started collecting food donations years ago to take advantage of the many carloads of people that visited during the Elliot Place lightup.

“We wanted to spread the good cheer beyond our neighbourhood.”

They collected about 615 pounds of food and $25 last year.

Buitenweg says he’s also collecting warm clothes for the Edmonton Bag of Hope program.

While he regularly donates to charity, Buitenweg says this is the first year he’s had a donation box at his display.

“About a year ago – Sept. 4, actually, last year, 2012 – I had a massive heart attack and I died twice,” he says, when asked why he made the change. (His heart stopped twice.)

“I lost everything because of it. I can’t work the same. I can’t do anything the same I used to.”

The experience got him thinking about the homeless people in St. Albert and Edmonton.

“It’s a hard time of year to have nothing,” he says, and there’s a lot of wealth here in town. “I wanted to give back and help people out as much as I could.”

He hopes his display will bring joy to people and remind them that it’s better to give than to receive.

Selles says he has no idea what it costs to run all these lights each year.

“We’re here to put on something for the community and we hope that they like it. The cost is not an issue.”

And in an age when many St. Albert streets are dark on Christmas, Selles says he gets a big kick out of his grandkids’ awed reactions when they see the blaze that is his street.

“As a grandparent, there can’t be anything better than that.”


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