16 November 2012

From Tragedy Came a Christmas Tradition

When Don and Rita Foster’s son Billy and his friend Art “Sonny” Culloden were killed in a 1958 Christmas Eve Car accident, the Foster’s decided to focus on the joy of Christmas instead of their grief, and the Foster Family Christmas Light Display was launched.
During the last fifty some years, the display has become a tradition in our community enjoyed by young and old alike by several generations now.  It was unique in our community, because in those days, lawn ornaments, outside lights and decorations were not as common as they are today.  Each component was originally built by Don, some powered by washing machine motors to drive all of the moving parts.  

For twenty-two years, the front lawn at the Foster’s home on Emily Street was alive with all manner of moving and dancing ornaments that expanded each year as Don lovingly built more components in his backyard barn workshop.  As the Fosters aged and could no longer look after this, Margery and Bruce Nickle continued the tradition at their home on Marsh Drive for many years.  The Tom Gavey Alemite Park on Pine Street has been the recent home of the display, refurbished courtesy of the Belleville Professional Firefighters Association.

But the old display needed more tender loving care and a permanent home.  The City of Belleville, recognizing the historical importance of this light display in the tradition and culture of our community, initiated a project that culminated in “Christmas at the Pier” and was launched on Friday November 16, 2012 with a Lighting Up Ceremony attended by over five hundred awestruck onlookers.  Fifty-six of my family and close friends were part of that group.
With the City of Belleville financial support for the project, supplemented by generous donations by individuals and businesses in the community, the Foster Family display has been refurbished, and has a special place in the centre of the Jane Forrester Park at Myers Pier, surrounded by several new components which will continue to be expanded each year by the City of Belleville, and featuring a signboard outlining the history of the display. 

The display is dedicated to the memory of Billy Foster and my brother Art “Sonny” Culloden and evokes strong personal memories.

I remember very vividly that Christmas morning in 1958.  As the youngest of six children, I was only six years old and barely remember my brother.  When I awoke that morning, I thought it strange that many of our family and friends were already at our home, as they usually visited in the afternoon of Christmas Day.  Everyone was very sad and crying.  When I opened my Christmas present from Sonny, my mother broke into tears.  It was exactly as I had asked for on my Christmas list – a mauve crinoline.
Thank you everyone in the community that has helped turn this personal tragedy into a community celebration.

Story Annis Ross (Culloden), pictures Nick White.  A more extensive article on the story behind the new display will appear in January edition of the Society's newsletter Outlook.

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