I’ve long understood that holiday lighting is a way of pushing back the night at the darkest time of the year, a tradition that stems from the earliest of winter solstice celebrations. Today, artificial night lighting is year round and defines our very existence. Without it our streets would not be safe and our factories couldn’t run 24 hours a day. Still, the blue, green, red and yellow lights of the holiday season do feel like an extra effort to collectively warm the night and get us by the shortest days of the year.
While attending Queen’s University in the 1980s, my parents moved to Vancouver from Ottawa and each year I would fly out to the west coast for Christmas with my family. I always requested a window seat on the airplane so that I could watch the passing landscape. On clear winter nights prairie towns could be seen glittering below. It was mostly the street lighting I could make out from the airplane, and against the vastness and biting cold the prairies that light spoke of warmth and refuge, safe harbour for anyone traveling the long distance during the holidays.
In 2002 I began work on Warm By Night, a public art commission for the 16 towers of CityPlace in Toronto. I had proposed simply that the tops of the towers should be illuminated with warm-coloured light as a way of signalling warmth, domesticity and welcome, especially during the long winter months. The strategy the project team developed was to place coloured filters over High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps to create the coloured illumination we desired for each tower. HID lighting is an energy efficient system used for lamp standards on streets and in parking lots, but also for illumination in greenhouses and factories. Each variety of HID lighting has a distinct, but limited, set of visible wavelengths that combine to create a whitish light: high pressure sodium has a pinkish-orange cast, metal halide has a bluish hue, and mercury vapour is decidedly green. And then there is also low-pressure sodium, which radiates an unearthly orange glow.
Today I have my own family and every other year we fly out to the west coast to join my parents for the holidays. I still prefer the window seat and still watch the landscape passing below, but I now read the light of the prairie towns somewhat differently. While I still sense the warmth and security the street lights bring, I now see the characteristic HID tints of blue, orange and pink. And occasionally, far off in some farmer’s snowy field, I catch the green glint of an old mercury vapour lamp pushing back the night. It looks like Christmas to me.