Published in the Montreal Gazette on December 21, 2013
One night, just over a quarter of a century ago, all of Quebec and parts of New Brunswick and New England were thrown into total darkness when Hydro Quebec suffered a major equipment failure in the far north. It was overcast in Montreal that April evening and I remember needing a flashlight to navigate my way along the smaller streets of the city centre where there was no passing automobile light to help ward off the obscurity. For me, it was an occasion to reflect upon how things must have been for people in yesteryear.
In fact, Montreal used to be a very dark city after sunset, and not just during power blackouts. In October of 1907, a Letter to the Editor in the Montreal Star stated that there were only four gas lamp standards at the time on the whole of the campus of McGill University. Street lighting was absolute minimal compared to today. Just imagine the darkness around the advent of the winter solstice, and Christmas!
In the Edwardian Era, many Montrealers stayed home in the evenings during the dimness of winter. It was simply safer and more comfortable. Nevertheless, the Edwardians often tried to add some brightness and warmth to their difficult lives, especially around December 25. This sometimes got them into trouble.
For instance, a few days before Christmas 1909, the Montreal Fire Department warned citizens through the local newspapers, including the Gazette, about the dangers associated with the placing of inflammable decorations, paper drappings, and early electric lights on Christmas trees. Some people, so desperate for the psychological solace of light, even placed lit candles on their indoor seasonal trees! Needless to say, house fires in late December were frequent due to the general carelessness.
Arguably, one of the first serious attempts at introducing artificial luminescence to the city’s Christmas spirit occurred at 5:00 P.M. on December 24, 1924. On that historic occasion, the newly–erected cross on Mount Royal was illuminated for the first time. In those days, Montreal had very few high-rise buildings, allowing the Dominion Bridge-manufactured structure to be visible easily from virtually anywhere in the immediate area. Its much-appreciated lustre warmed the hearts of many a Montrealer.
As the years passed, other colourful attractions added a sense of dazzle to the holiday season. In 1947, Ogilvy’s inaugurated its children’s Christmas mechanical display window on the northwest corner of Mountain and St. Catherine Streets. To my great glee, my parents took me there nearly every Christmas season so I could revel in its intricate moving parts. The long–established Montreal department store commissioned two versions of the device from the top scale German-based toy company ‘Steiff’. They were both made to measure for the window in question, one depicting “a Mill in the Forest” and the other, an “Enchanted Village”. This year, it’s the turn of the ‘Mill in the Forest’ to delight the fantasies of the little ones.
Nowadays, city streets and squares have a lot to offer on the seasonal brightness front as well. One of the most attractive of these is certainly McGill College Avenue. The short downtown thoroughfare should be viewed in the evening – preferably a snowy one – to be appreciated fully. From the perspective of the somewhat elevated exterior plaza of Place Ville Marie, the sight is simply spectacular. A quick glance northward reveals in rapid succession PVM’s iconic composite Christmas tree, quickly followed by the finely – lit crabapple trees running the length of the road, the stunning outdoor wreath on the Ultramar Building, and, finally, in the distance, that same cross on that same Mount Royal brightening up the night sky.
At this joyful time of the year, the recently refurbished Place d’Armes in Old Montreal is perhaps as enchanting as any other corner of the city. Indeed, the daintily strung blue lights enhancing the imposing façade of Notre Dame Basilica, superimposed with the three herald angels hanging from its triple arched portico, is worth the digression in itself. As well, the eight lovely electric light snowflakes suspended in front of the equally historic Bank of Montreal building on the other side of the square also have great seasonal appeal. These two perspectives, along with the always radiant charm of the red sandstone New York Insurance Building (Montreal’s first ‘skyscraper’ at the time of its 1889 construction) on the east side of Place d’Armes, impart the vintage town square with a festive allure as striking as any other.
And if all this doesn’t put you in the holiday spirit, check out the year-round Christmas boutique, ‘Noël Eternel’, at 461 rue Saint–Sulpice, just by Notre Dame Basilica. Its warmth and cheerfulness won’t disappoint.
Happy Holidays! Joyeuses Fêtes!
Below, Place d’Armes and Notre Dame Basilica just before this Christmas past