A giant tree of lights that magically appears in Centennial Park every year, a 72 foot archway that alerts visitors that they have arrived, a castle and pirate ship that shine over the St. Clair River. These are the enduring features of a winter lights festival that is a tribute to the Sarnia resident who inspired it.
Quote by Cathy Dobson December 27, 2010
For many years, beginning in the early 1950’s, Harvey McMichael would decorate his home on Oak Street with hundreds of lights bringing pleasure to many residents in the neighbourhood and to visitors coming to the area to see the display. Mayor Marcell Saddy recognized Harvey McMichael for his efforts to bring Christmas cheer to so many people by including him on his Mayor’s Honour List.. Son, Wayne continues on this tradition since Harvey’s passing in 1986.
Some have credited the refineries in Chemical Valley for getting the Celebration of Lights off the ground as much as Harvey McMichael. In the 1980’s, the big industries replaced their regular lights and their staff built elaborate displays for the holidays. Local leaders such as Steele and the late Wills Rawana who was a city councilor, saw the tourist potential in a light festival in the park.
Inspired by Harvey McMichael’s decorated home, and maybe Chemical Valley, a group of volunteers organized the city’s first celebration in 1984 with just 650 lights and was known as the Festival of Lights. A contest was held to find a new name for the festival, as Niagara Falls light display was called Festival of Lights. Scott Taylor from Cathcart School was the first person to submit the name “Celebration of Lights” in the contest, which drew more than 130 submissions. As of May 1986 the name of the lighting of Centennial Park was officially changed to Celebration of Lights.
Light bulbs and decorative plates were sold in those early years, and sponsorships from local corporations and private businesses helped to buy the first displays.
That first year, there were a meager 650 lights and nine displays but the community loved the idea. Residents caught on quickly when they were encouraged to enter a lighting contest for their homes. Soon out of town motor coaches were touring Sarnia neighbourhoods by the dozens.
In the 1980’s, the Visitor and Convention Bureau that later morphed into Tourism Sarnia-Lambton, provided a part-time coordinator who worked with volunteers to stage a big opening ceremony and the month long festival.
The event meant long hours and a lot of work in the cold to install and maintain the displays but there was always a core group of people willing to give their time. People like Pauline Reaney, John Charest, Don Dawson and Ross Dyke have helped with the celebration since its inception. In 2009 they celebrated their 25th year.
In 1999, $300,000 was spent to revitalize the event with new displays and more lights. Unprecedented growth continued for two years.
But hard times hit in 2001 after 9/11. Americans, who once flocked to see the lights and stay in local hotels, weren’t as interested in crossing the border. A decision by Tourism Sarnia-Lambton to cut the Celebration of Lights loose, sent the event in a tailspin. That same year, Transport Canada withdrew the use of its storage sheds at the government docks.
For two years, the St. Clair Parks Commission took it on, but that ended when the commission folded.
With limited resources and a dwindling volunteer base, the festival soldiered on. In 2003, a Trillium grant saved the day with $114,000 and in 2004, some major sponsorship money was provided by TransAlta and for many years after.
Incorporated in 2002, the Celebration of Lights is run by a voluntary Board of Directors.
The festival grew some more and had a tally of 250 displays. The number of motor coaches began to increase again and the Celebration was extended to seven weeks. It’s still not “owned” by any one organization and its success continues to depend on a dedicated volunteer base.
In 2010 the Celebration of Lights is rejuvenated. Volunteer effort led by chairman Ted Arnold has managed to maintain and grow the event. Sarnia firefighters continue to pitch in every year by creating an enormous Christmas tree at the foot of London Road. Bill Suisham, a new Director of the Board introduced new technology, pixels, in 2010. A pixel is a “light” that has 3 different LED’s in each one with a computer chip to control the amount of light each of the 3 LEDs emits. With this new lighting we are able to change the effect of the lighting to suit our needs.
Over the next few years, the Celebration of Lights added new displays, sponsored by community businesses, with new lighting. Snowmen and Santa and his reindeers were purchased and strung with new lighting. Nativity, down hill toboganeers and candle point were upgraded. With the economy taking a turn the sponsors dwindled and volunteer base was few. Donations from OPG, TransAlta and community over the next few years kept the Celebration of Lights afloat.
October 6, 2016 a news release told the public that the Celebration of Lights does not have the necessary funding or volunteer commitments needed from the community to organize their event held at Sarnia’s Centennial Park during the festive season. The board of the Celebration of Lights has had to make the difficult decision to take a hiatus for the 2016 season. However, the firemen’s tree and a few small displays will be set up. The board of the Celebration of Lights and their committees will take this year to concentrate on raising funds, recruiting sponsors and volunteers that are needed for the 2017 season and beyond.
The outcry was enormous. E-mails and phone calls came in from the community, individuals, service groups, unions and businesses asking what they could do to make sure the lights were turned on for 2016. Due to this, a decision was changed to go ahead with lighting of the park.
Due to community support, the Board decided to give the displays responsibility to the public. Saturday, week before setup, cars and trucks with trailers and flat beds were at the bins to pick up their displays. The site was overwhelming. Individuals, the same day. started to fix up displays that they have taken responsibility for.
Thursday before set up, Alexander Mackenzie students were at the park to clean up displays and assemble. Along with hydro workers they strung lights on several fir trees and decorated one tree with their own ornaments. London Road students walked down to hang their ornaments on another tree. It was quite the site.
Saturday, set up day, showed a dedicated community ready to do what needed to be done. Displays were up, trees decorated by 2 p.m. With extension cord wrapping and computer setting left to do, it looked like it was going to happen. Thanking the community for sponsoring and for all the help, the Celebration of Lights with the help of Santa, turned the lights on at 7:00 p.m. Friday, November 18, 2016 and will remain on until January 1, 2017.
We are gearing up for another great season. Candle Arch that has not been seen for a couple of years will be back in place, due to the help of the Goodwill Industries and many busy hands.
1988, recognized locally on the Mayor’s Honour List for outstanding service to the people of the City of Sarnia
1988, received the Ontario Chamber of Commerce Presidents Award.
1991, received the Ener$en$e Award for energy conservation.
2000, recognized as one of the top 50 events from Festival & Events Ontario.
2001, received the Website Award from Festivals & Events Ontario.
2002, recognized as the runner-up in the Canadian Government’s Canada Winterlights competition following the extensive judging of festivals across the country.
2009 – awards given to Pauline Reany, John Charest, Don Dawson and Ross Dyke for their dedication to the Celebration of Lights for 25 years.
2013, nominated for the Sarnia-Lambton Chamber of Commerce Outstanding Business Achievement Award in the Environmental Category.