(Writer’s note: King Square is as it was spelled in 1923, and for years thereafter but it is now always spelled as King’s Square. Where it is in quotes, therefore, I have left it, and also St. John as was appropriate for the era.)
Although Saint John’s streets have been lit with electric power since 1884, there was no mention of any effort to mark the Christmas season with decorative lighting until 1923.
This happened the year after the Power Commission of Saint John was established in December 1922 with a mandate to provide energy at cost. The company is celebrating its century mark as Saint John Energy.
The impetus for this formation was the completion of the New Brunswick Electric Commission power station, which took advantage of the Musquash area lakes to the west of Saint John as a renewable source of hydro power to drive their dynamos.
This was a controversial move as a private company. New Brunswick Power was providing electric power from a coal fired plant on Symthe Street, in the centre of the city. However, it was costing consumers six times what similar plants in Ontario were charging ($1.81 vs. $10.90 c/kWh). The move to buy the new source of Musquash water generated power at $2.35 c/kWh was so strongly opposed by Mayor Harry McLennan, (who had originally supported the move) that he was recalled from office. He thus became the only Saint John mayor to have lost his position in such a way, throughout the years the city has voted in its mayors.
One of the first benevolent acts of the newly-formed commission was the establishment of a popular and longtime Christmas tradition in the city of placing a lit tree in King’s Square, a single year after its founding.
There is a distinct possibility that this action was based on a photograph that appeared in the Daily Telegraph the year the commission was founded, of an illuminated tree in Madison Square Park in New York City. It is also possible that the idea came from a tree lighting and carol singing event that took place outside the Chipman Memorial Hospital in St. Stephen in 1919, when Girl Guides gathered around a lighted tree lit using power generated by the machinery at the Milltown Cotton Mill.
The Christmas greeting banner at the head of King Street, circa 1980.
While nothing is found in the official records of the Power Commission to verify the first tree lighting, its occurrence is clearly established from the pages of the Saint John Globe newspaper. On December 22, 1923 a Globe report stated, “a community Christmas tree is being placed in King Square…this is the first time…and is being looked forward to with keen interest.” This was followed on December 24 with an account which read, “A fine large Christmas tree has been placed in position in King Square just in front of the Imperial Theatre through the efforts of the St. John High School Alumnae with a view of creating interest in the Christmas season. The tree will be trimmed by the members of the alumnae and will be illuminated with electric light by the St. John Hydro Electric Commission.”
Every year from this beginning until 1941, similar reports were found in the daily newspapers, often detailing the names of various individuals and choirs and naming the carols they sang around the tree. The idea spread from the Square to trees lit up at the nearby Sydney Street Public Health Centre and then to the more distant Waterloo Street General Hospital, but came to a crashing halt in 1941. This is when a notice appeared in the Times Globe newspaper published under order of Sidney A Jones, A.R.P. Lighting Officer, which stated emphatically, “Householders are strictly forbidden to have Christmas trees bearing electric lights on their lawns, or otherwise outside their homes…” This was to ensure the city would be black at night so submarines lurking offshore would have no target.
It was 10 years before an illuminated tree appeared once more in King’s Square when Common Council announced the approval of “placing the lighting of a Christmas Tree in King Square,” with the “Water and Sewerage Department, the Fire Department and Civic Hydro personnel” to make “the installation and do the maintenance.”
That same notice stated that, “in addition, this year, special lighting will be put up and down King Street and around King Square…along Dock Street, Mill Street and Main Street.”
What wasn’t stated was that this occurred due to a visit from royalty, the late Queen Elizabeth, then Princess Elizabeth. The lights had been placed for her November visit to the Admiral Beatty Hotel adjacent the park on King Square South; and soon after, merchants asked they remain in place for the Christmas season. Thus began the expanded street lighting of Saint John streets that goes on to this day.
This initiative encouraged others to add decorative lighting, as the Times Globe reported, “Many householders and storekeepers have reached new heights this year in ingenious and attractive Christmas lighting and decorating displays.”
With the opening of Sears store in 1955, the surrounding Lansdowne Plaza decorative light poles added to the street decoration efforts and the Plaza became the go-to location for dazzling displays. However, this did not continue to be the case, although it might have been the impetus to further expansion of the civic lighting displays, which continued to be done annually without fanfare by Civic Hydro.
The competition certainly sparked the uptown merchants on Germain Street to step up their efforts to improve what they called the Quality Block. Norm Patterson had seen ornamental decorative seasonal lights when on a trip to southern United States in the late 1950s, and suggested to his neighbouring storeowners, including Wendell Haines, they should place an order for similar lights. Haines said in a 1998 interview that “When it was all done, it was much admired, but also much criticized as the city got calls criticizing the lighting, as they thought we had gotten special attention, but that was not the case at all, as we paid all the bills ourselves.”
It was soon after this that the swags of lighting spanning King Street, including a stunning “Merry Christmas” banner at the head of King, were placed, replacing the single lines of bulbs that had been the norm. With the change to the layout of King Street following the closure of the huge Manchester, Robertson Allison store in 1973, lighting attached to decorative poles or placed in trees became the norm.
The tradition of lighting up Saint John continues, with young workers preparing holiday decorations for installation. (Saint John Energy)
The annual lighting is still carried out by Saint John Energy, at an average cost of $30,000 per year, with assistance from Uptown Saint John in replacing the older bells with snowflakes. With others, this had now become a city-wide effort. For example, in 2020, with COVID-19 raging, what was called “A magical winter wonderland” was set up on Tilley Square on the west side of the city. It was described as a “luminous candy cane forest,” with “giant nutcrackers and life-sized gingerbread men…intended to brighten the neighbourhood and the spirit of its residents.”
As had been the case since 1923, Saint John Energy was among the sponsors of this effort. In our electronic age we might not consider what was described in 1923 as “a Community Tree ablaze with lights” in King’s Square a particularly unusual sight. However, the COVID light show was viewed with as “keen interest” as those described a century earlier, when it was considered “a sign of celebration anyone could enjoy.”
Saint John Energy has continued to be quietly community-minded over the decades and has currently set up some new initiatives and partnerships that will see wind power from the Burchill station in Lorneville introduced to their smart grid to provide 15 per cent of the city’s energy needs. Citizens will continue to have their gaily lit streets and squares at Christmas, and enjoy the advantages of affordable power in their own homes, in the fashion that has been the mandate of Saint John Energy for the past century.