Anticipation hung heavy in the air Friday night as hundreds of people gathered around the Orillia Opera House for the annual tree-lighting ceremony that serves as the unofficial kickoff to the Christmas season.
Wide-eyed kids and adults alike turned their attention to the big evergreen tree as Mayor Don McIsaac led a countdown to the big moment.
But the big moment became a big letdown as, to everyone’s surprise, only the trunk of the tree was lit up.
Some started a second countdown, hoping it was just a glitch.
It was not.
It was “very disappointing,” said Lynda Wiltse, echoing the sentiments of many who found the whole thing underwhelming.
It didn’t help that McIsaac’s microphone did not work, either.
In the afterglow, a video of the “very sad” event took on a life of its own and Orillia became a laughingstock far outside its municipal boundaries.
So why did the event fizzle so dramatically?
This year, the Downtown Orillia Business Improvement Area (BIA), which organizes the event, had to take a different approach to the ceremony for a number of reasons, officials say.
In fact, the event might not have happened if Megan Murray, owner of Jack & Maddy A Kids' Store, hadn’t stepped in to help organize it. That was necessary because the paid staff members of the Downtown Orillia Management Board recently left their jobs.
The bigger issue at the root of the disappointing event was the tree itself. Known by many as “Fred’s tree,” the blue spruce was planted in front of the Opera House at the suggestion of Fred Noakes. Back in the 1970s, he urged council to plant the tree rather than cut down a tree in the forest each Christmas to be decorated downtown.
For years, the tree grew in stature and became a festive focal point of the downtown. In recent years, Hydro One crews used a boom truck to adorn the tree with countless strings of lights.
While magical, the annual exercise did harm to the tree and its branches over time. Such was the extent of the damage that the decision was made to just illuminate the tree’s trunk this year.
“Unfortunately, the tree at the Orillia Opera House has deteriorated over time,” said Mike Ladouceur, the city’s director of business development, tourism and modernization.
“Arborists, as well as the lighting contractor, determined that lighting the entire tree posed a risk to the tree. The weight of the lights on the branches could also pose a risk to public safety,” Ladouceur said.
“Given the event had already been planned and advertised by the Downtown Orillia BIA, staff worked with the Orillia Downtown BIA and contractors to find an alternative option. The decision was made to focus on lighting the trunk as a compromise to preserve the festive spirit of the event," he added.
Ladouceur said the future of the tree is on shaky ground.
“It has been recommended by the city’s arborist that a further assessment by a specialized arborist will need to be completed to determine future plans for the tree,” he explained.
As for the future of the event itself, that's up to the BIA, said Ladouceur.
“The City of Orillia supports events organized and hosted by the Downtown Orillia BIA, such as the Children’s Candlelight Parade and the annual tree-lighting ceremony, and appreciates their efforts to put on these family-friendly events to kick off the holiday season in Orillia,” he said.
“The City of Orillia will be working with the Downtown Orillia BIA to look at various options to continue this holiday tradition in the future.”
It’s unfortunate the truncated tree lighting overshadowed the event, says Leslie Fournier, who founded and continues to spearhead the Streets Alive project. In a social media post, she said this year’s event was better than any other.
“The tree lighting was just a small part of it all. What the candlelight parade did was bring families out to mingle, chat, catch up with friends and neighbours and enjoy activation of our streets. The parade and event was enhanced by many fabulous additions this year,” Fournier said in her post, citing Christmas markets at Creative Nomad Studios and Orillia Farmers’ Market.
"There were more people on the street, enjoying a fun and festive night out than I have seen in past years,” she wrote.
While the ceremony was underwhelming and communication of the change in lighting plans could have been better, Fournier conceded, there are positives to celebrate.
"Let’s celebrate the fact that some volunteer shop owners in downtown Orillia thought it was important to have a Candlelight Parade and an evening of events and festivities to bring families together,” Fournier wrote.
“With the absence of BIA staff (who have recently moved on to other jobs) the owners of Jack & Maddy - Kids' Store pulled up their sleeves to make sure we could continue our community tradition of our candlelight parade.”