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Cover Story: Making Seasons Bright
In the 1980s, Ron Jamieson factored in Christmas on the blueprint for his custom-built Blueridge home.
He had outlets installed in the eaves of his roof that were wired to accommodate the energy of 2,000-plus Christmas lights. The electrician tried to talk him out of it, but Ron insisted. This light display was going to be his legacy.
Last Sunday afternoon, Ron emerged from his garage armed with bundles of light strands.
“This is a bonus,” he bellows, referring to blue skies overhead and mild temperature.
Almost every year, Ron, now entering his 37th season as the reigning king of Blueridge Christmas displays, dons a rain slicker and completes the selfless task in the throes of a torrential downpour in late November.
But today he’s sporting sweatpants and a sweatshirt from the University of Toronto, where his youngest daughter went to nursing school.
From the street, Ron stands back and surveys his two-storey canvas and sprawling property punctuated with barren cherry blossom trees. Eleven months out of the year, his house blends into the suburban landscape of this peaceful neighbourhood at the edge of the forest.
His next-door neighbour pokes her head around the corner and joyfully announces, “Christmas is unfolding as it should.” Seeing Ron set up his perennial Christmas masterpiece sends a gentle nudging to his neighbours to get their act in gear.
One time he entered the entire neighbourhood in a Christmas lights contest hosted by Grouse Mountain. The plethora of lights created a Christmas beacon high on the hillside that could be seen from the Second Narrows Bridge as you entered North Van.
That year the Jamieson family won the award for the best Christmas lights display, along with a free season’s pass to Grouse Mountain.
According to Ron, there is no exact formula for putting together this grandiose exhibit of glistening lights.
“This isn’t rocket science,” he says.
Ron might look at a picture of the display from the previous year and say to himself: “OK, these lights fit here.”
However, there is one exception in his festive configuration: The strands of lights framing six bedroom windows on the top floor. They have remained a permanent fixture throughout the year.
Using a sledgehammer, Ron secures a “Merry Christmas” sign between two wooden, red-nosed reindeer. One of his helpers, Danelle Wright, an employee of his highway line painting company, props up the sign.
The reindeer are among 27 life-size, colourful wooden Christmas decorations that adorn the face of the house and front yard. Handcrafting each one himself, Ron drew his inspiration from holiday gift tags.
Sitting in his basement, using a grid system, he scaled the gift tags up to poster size, later hand-painting each one onto sheets of plywood.
The signs, most of them depicting scenes of animal characters frolicking in the snow, are now 37 years old and have held up well. Except there’s one missing — a penguin that was stolen by kids many Christmases ago.
Ron smiles, with a what-can-you-do shrug.
The subject of energy-efficient LEDs is broached. Ron is decidedly a Christmas lights traditionalist. There are no icicle lights or flashy decorations to be found in his display. Why?
“I think it’s tacky,” says Ron matter-of-factly.
Even with 10,000 LED lights, the house wouldn’t be half as bright, he figures. Ron’s neighbour has even joked about it, telling him: “If you go to LED, I’m moving.”
Speaking of electricity bills, when asked how much it costs to put on this Christmas show, Ron’s humble nature shines through in his response.
“People come by and the lights make them feel good, so I don’t worry about the price. It’s really nothing,” he says.
There are purposely no white bulbs on any of the multi-colour strands of lights.
“If you see a clear bulb that means the socket doesn’t work. It’s a time saver,” explains Ron.
He’ll probably replace 500 faded or burnt-out bulbs, this year alone.
Another one of Ron’s employees, Pat Keoush, who’s knee-deep in tangled light strands at the bottom of the driveway, has been lending a hand with this display for seven years.
“I don’t consider it hard work because I enjoy Christmas,” says Keoush.
A few hours later, when the day fades to night, a steady stream of cars will slowly drive by the illuminated house — once on the way up the cul-de-sac, and then a second time on the way down.
The show starts at 5 p.m. when Ron physically flips on a series of light switches stationed throughout the house.
As there are no timers on this display, the Jamiesons enjoy a staycation every December. If it pours rain, Ron will instinctively look out the window no less than five times a night to make sure the show is still on and no parts of it have short-circuited.
Seeing families linger in front of the glowing display with their loved ones is Ron’s reward. For many of them, coming to this house is an annual Christmas tradition. Even those who move away from North Van often come back to 2931 Marykirk Place during the holidays.
The show typically wraps up every night at 10:30. But there have been some exceptions. Ron shares a few special memories of how he made the season brighter for some folks.
One year, a grandmother, while making a special trip from Squamish to show her grandkids the Christmas lights in Blueridge, became sidelined by a flat tire. By the time she reached Ron’s doorstep, it was 3 o’clock in the morning.
After breathlessly explaining her predicament, Ron didn’t hesitate for a second to accommodate the grandmother’s request.
“And I looked at her and said, ‘Yes, not a problem,’” recalls Ron.
On another occasion, a group of New Year’s Eve revelers clutching flasks had congregated at 2 a.m. on the street in front of his property.
Ron was most likely smiling as he flipped the switches, creating a spontaneous explosion of light on the darkened street. The revelers basked in the glow of the lights for half an hour, reminiscing about the year gone by.
Growing up in East Vancouver, Ron remembers how every Christmas his family would drive around to see houses decked out with lights and decorations.
“One guy even had tin soldiers coming down his driveway,” describes Ron. “That was the highlight of my Christmas.”
For pint-sized Raya Grant, it’s the Grinch — that’s her favourite part of Ron’s Christmas display. On Sunday evening, when the lights switched on for the first time this season, Raya and her mom Sheila were among the first to see them.
The Blueridge family takes a picture at this house every Christmas and had been waiting with anticipation for opening night.
“We will come here almost daily,” says Sheila admiring the colourful scene.
Moments later another family drives by in an SUV and two teenage sisters jump out. The mom points out Ron’s old-fashioned drawings.
“They are from our day,” she says. “You just don’t see them anymore.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of North Van, the Ribalkin family is busily setting up their annual Christmas display in Canyon Heights.
Standing on his top floor balcony last Friday, family patriarch John Ribalkin is multi-tasking, hanging yet another string of lights while simultaneously talking to The Outlook.
“We finished the roof at 6 p.m. last night,” proclaims John.
Dripping with twinkling blue icicles, the eaves are just one facet in this brilliant display that boasts 100,000-plus Christmas lights.
“Our light display, we look at it as being a Disneyland display,” describes John.
Strategically placed around the yard are festive scenes featuring such holiday characters as an 18-foot-tall Frosty the Snowman and Jolly Old Saint Nick himself.
The crowning glory is a massive blue star suspended 86 feet in the air by ropes attached to Douglas fir trees. Each line on the star is 20 feet long and, from what the Ribalkins have been told, can been seen all the way from Coal Harbour.
Setting the star in place above the house each year is no easy feat. It involves a minimum of four men using a pulley system on the trees that was set up with the help of an arborist. One false move and the star will smash into one of the trees.
The Ribalkins start the preparations for their Christmas display around Halloween. They unbox all the lights and ornaments and make any necessary repairs. Then it takes two full weekends to do the setup outside.
John’s son Ethan was holding down the fort at the family business, Verico Nova Financial Services, on Friday while his parents worked on decorating the house.
He mentions how they are behind schedule, because, as per usual, his dad “secretly” bought more Christmas lights on Boxing Day last year.
“We only have so much room to mount things on the house,” laughs Ethan.
The family is chasing a Sunday evening deadline when scores of family will turn up to their house to see the spectacle of lights.
Ethan recalls how this tradition turned into a fundraiser for the Harvest Project.
“I remember a couple years ago I said to my dad, ‘There are a lot of people driving past the house,’” says Ethan.
The family chose to collect donations for the Harvest Project, which supports North Shore families in need, because, as John puts it, they give people a second chance in life.
“The main reason is that some of us are privileged, but there are many in our community that don’t have the kickstart that others have,” says John.
The Harvest Project has set a goal of raising $200,000 from across the North Shore community by mid-January to support programs such as food distribution for those in need. Last year, the Ribalkins raised $3,869 and collected 51 bags of groceries for the Harvest Project.
And like Ron Jamieson over in Blueridge, John has also touched people through his display of lights.
Two days before Christmas last year, a friend of the family knocked on the door. Her husband, a retired teacher who had suffered a stroke three months before, was in poor health, but it was his wish to see the lights.
“His last two words to me were, “Looks good,” recalls John, whose friend died one month later.
This past Sunday, the Ribalkins officially lit up their home for the season. Visit 4967 Chalet Place to see the display and make a food or cash donation to the Harvest Project.