The Lions Festival of Lights is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. The Calgary winter favourite is located at the Confederation Park Golf Course and consists of over 300,000 lights and three kilometres of power cords.
The Festival of Lights is the largest free drive-by Christmas lights showcase in Calgary and requires hundreds of volunteers to make it happen.
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“At 91 you mostly just stick to doing lunch,” chuckled Otto Strand, who was busy on Sunday feeding the dozens of volunteers setting up lights. “But I do come and check light bulbs. They all have to be checked. Every year they have to be checked and if there’s any burnt bulbs they have to be replaced.”
Strand was recently honoured with a nomination for the Lions Hall of Fame in Alberta.
The Calgary Lions Club took over the light display at Confederation Park three decades ago, according to the Lions member who got the ball rolling.
“The lights used to be here and then they were gone for a number of years. So for the Olympics, I wanted to get them reinstated and so I did a lot of letter-writing and canvassing of the Olympic sponsors and they didn’t come through with any money,” said Otto Silzer, chair of the Lions Festival of Lights. “I eventually contacted Sunshine Village and they said yes. The Scurfield family just lives up here in Foothills Estates. They were quite familiar with the old lights that were here before and so we just continued on from there.”
The light display relies on sponsors, funds raised by casinos and electricity supplied by Enmax.
The display has doubled in size since the Lions started. Enmax volunteers with trucks now help to reach the huge scaffolding, which is a big change from the earlier days.
“We are far more safety conscious now than we were 30 years ago,” Silzer said. “On Saturday, Enmax was out here with 14 bucket trucks. We used to do the same amount of work, but we used to do it with scissor lifts and it used to take us weeks to do what they could accomplish in about four hours. And they did it much more safely than we did it.
“We once had a van and a half-ton van with a little bucket on the top of it and we were using that and one of the fellows knocked the whole truck and everything over on its side,” laughed Norman Weismose, a long-time volunteer.
“But we’re not allowed to do that anymore.”
The Festival is now nearly 100 per cent green, powered by LED light bulbs. But with the growth in the display, comes the need for a lot more volunteers.
“We’re always looking for more. We can use people of any age,” Silzer said.
“We had a person out here who is totally blind helping us with the Christmas lights. We can find something for everyone to do. Even if they can’t stand very long, we can find something where they can sit so it’s really quite amazing.”
Judy Vaillancourt was walking through Confederation Park on Sunday morning when she saw the Lions members hauling out the displays.
“Every year it gets a little bigger and it gets a little bit better,” she said. “I love the fact that people will do this just on a volunteer basis and so many people drive by and it makes their Christmas a little bit better.”
She was so impressed by the work the Lions have been doing, she decided to take a detour from her walk and volunteer with the group.
“When people that are over 90 will help do this display, you know that it’s a good thing for the city and you know how much it means to everybody.”
It’s been a lot of work for the Lions members who have done this for 30 years. Many recall setting up lights on -30 degree C days and sorting through hundreds of boxes of lights and stacks of displays. But they keeping doing it because of the happiness it brings to people in Calgary.
“It’s great for the community; it’s great for the city. There’s so many children and families that walk through here every day. It’s unbelievable,” said Strand, who at 91 years old, says he has no plans to retire from his volunteer work.
The big reward for everyone involved comes when the lights finally go on after months of hard work.
“Satisfaction,” Silzer said. “It’s just so pleasing to have that happen. And everybody’s here and enjoying themselves and I know that it’s bringing hope and comfort to a lot of people because they really need that.”
The light display begins on Nov. 26 and runs nightly until Jan. 8. This year, the Lions are adding an ambitious new 14-metre tall display for Canada’s 150th birthday.
For information on how you can get involved, you can check out the Festival of Lights website here.