The History of Wetherby Christmas Lights
Wetherby Christmas Lights, we look forward to them every year but do we all know how this wonderful tradition even started? Let's take you back to 1964...
Christmas trees is in a Wetherby News scrapbook dated 1964.
Colin Wardman, owner of Wardman's Ironmongers was the first shopkeeper to put up Christmas trees with lights above his shop windows in the Market Place. It didn't take long before his shopkeeper neighbours wanted to join in the festive fun and asked him if he would also trees up above their shops too.
Colin, together with some friends (including Bill Gray and Michael Kay) set out preparing the first trees in a room behind Wardman’s ironmongers shop in the Market Place, with the large Christmas Tree on the Garden of Rest being erected in1967 in a joint effort from Peter Allanby and Reg Dean and it has been placed there ever since! Image: Festive Illuminations - Wetherby Market Place (Christmas 1965)
As the years passed more and more shopkeepers asked for trees and the volunteer team expanded to keep up with the demand. John Tatterton, Wetherby's Community Constable in 1972 joined the group as a volunteer.
Did you know that that the “Shoe Tree”, when it was in the Market Place, provided empty shoe boxes which were used to store the Christmas lights. The sets of lights, complete with glass bulbs, were kept in the shoe boxes which were labelled for each shop. They had different lengths of cable so it was important to know which set of lights went on which shop.
During these early days Bill Gray made the huge illuminated cross for St James’ Church porch roof. It has had a bit of maintenance over the years, but is still going strong. Bill also made the ‘star’ template for the original lamp post stars. The current lamp post decorations are hired from and put up by Leeds City Council.
Through the years we have seen John Tatterton, Mel Jones, Mark Wharton, Mandie Wharton take charge of the Christmas Lights, with today's crew consisting of Wetherby Business Association's Steve Kay and volunteers from the community.
Almost all the volunteers in luminous high-viz “Wetherby Christmas Lights” jackets are pensioners. At least one is in his nineties and another, Jack Brook, celebrated working 25 years on the Christmas Lights Team in 2016.
Volunteers produce up to a whopping 200 trees every Christmas.
The timetable has not really changed.
The big design displays are always put up on Armistice Sunday. This is because the streets of Wetherby are officially closed to traffic for the Armistice Parade so the volunteers can use the JCB ‘Cherry-picker’ to place the displays with minimal disturbance to traffic.
Over 200 trees are unloaded and the lower branches are trimmed off, with the trunks narrowed using axes initially and a chainsaw/angle grinder to reduce their width so that they will fit into the brackets above the Wetherby shops.
Considering the chainsaw/angle grinder has been used for a good number of years there has only been a couple of accidents. Each tree has a string of lights wrapped round and round it.
The lights are secured in place with twist ties to keep them in place through wind and rain. Nowadays we use LED lights which provide brighter lights, better colours and are much tougher. Originally glass light bulbs were used and if one of these broke (and they did!) the whole tree was plunged into darkness until the broken bulb was replaced by some-one climbing up a ladder. Another article in the Wetherby News in 1989 reports the use of a “colossal number of light bulbs – 1,600 coloured and 2,225 clear bulbs.”
The ‘dressed’ trees are loaded into a large van and then taken out by the delivery team and up ladders to be placed into the brackets. Some years the trees are so heavy it takes two men with two ladders to get the trees into position.
Before Health and Safety, light connections were installed it was not unknown for the ladder man to exclaim technical electrical Anglo-Saxon phrases as he got a shock unplugging the light strings, which were still live, as the trees were unplugged and removed. Nowadays Health and Safety dictates that Steve Kay’s qualified electricians have had to fix safety sockets so the volunteers can now plug in the lights safely.
In addition the two big trees in the Garden of Rest and the Market Place have to be erected and festooned with light strings. Light strings have to be put up above the pedestrian exit from the Market Place, down the Shambles and in Church Street and the Cross goes up on St James Church Porch. Stringing the long line of lights across both sides of the bridge was a big job but that is now the responsibility of Leeds City Council, who also put up and, of course, take down the displays on the lamp posts.
In the last couple of years there has been an “Official Switch On.” Celebrities throw a switch for the lighting of the Market Place Christmas tree and the Town Hall displays. All the other lights are controlled by the electricity supply of their individual buildings.
Then Wetherby can literally bask in the glow of the Christmas lights for several weeks.
But all good things must come to and end after the New Year, displays and tress are removed in early January, while volunteers control the traffic. The displays are checked over to see they are OK and any damaged ones are marked up for repair.
All the light strings are removed. All the ties are carefully removed for recycling on next Christmas’ trees. The old trees are stacked up and later they get shredded for mulch.
If someone were to attempt to calculate how many hours the couple of dozen volunteers put in at (say) minimum wage for preparing, maintaining and putting up the lights for the cost of a supper then we would say that our beautiful town is getting a good deal.
As the year rolls round a smaller team of volunteers check and repair all the lights displays. The rope light streams are particularly tricky to repair. All the brackets are inspected and repaired or replaced over the summer.
Until it all starts again for the next year...
Bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase “Many hands make lights work".
If you would like to volunteer for the Christmas Light team, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch ready for this year's celebrations.
WHY DO THE VOLUNTEERS GET INVOLVED?
“…. I like to think I am giving something back to the community. I enjoy it.”
39 year old male.
“….Helping with the lights makes me feel part of the community. There is a good feel and social atmosphere amongst the group. I enjoy seeing the town looking festive. It’s nice to hear the many complimentary comments about the decorations.”
70 year old lady.
“….When my wife and I moved to Wetherby seven years ago we were impressed by the Christmas decorations and how hard the volunteers worked to maintain those high standards. Not only for the Wetherby residents but also the many visitors who come from far and wide to see them. We felt we would like to help in some small way. We enjoy preparing the trees and taking the lights off. It’s fab working with such an industrious and jovial group of people.”
Husband and wife team. “Well retired.”
“….. I am a widower and derive great pleasure from working with the Christmas lights team each year. I like contributing towards the wonderful displays throughout the team.”
74 year old male
“….I like to feel involved in the community helping on a weekend outside of a full time job.”
46 year old male.
“….I am one of the back room ladies, working in the engine shed, putting lights on the trees. I love the way the town looks over Xmas. I love the good atmosphere amongst the volunteers.”
64 year old lady.
I have been involved in the Wetherby lights for three years. It is good to be part of the team of ladies helping the fellas making Wetherby so festive.”
70 year old lady
“….It is nice to put something back into the community at Xmas.”
69 year old male.
“….I help with the Christmas Lights because my grandchildren love the lights in town. It is nice to give something back, and be part of the team.”
68 year old male.
“…….I feel I should support and help the lights team as they make Wetherby town look most attractive over the festive period. I admire the dedication of all the group. Climbing ladders. Lifting heavy trees etc. sometimes, in appalling conditions. There is a super atmosphere within the group. I wish I were a bit younger and could do more.”
86 year old male.
In the early days, one year when the big Christmas tree had just been erected Colin Wardman said he had lost his cigarette lighter – so the big tree was taken down to see if the lighter had fallen into the hole! No reports of a successfull mission however!
Years ago one volunteer was assigned tea making duties and was seen putting a tea bag in each mug. The rest of the volunteers, being true Yorkshiremen, said “Surely we can get two cups of tea from each tea bag?” Next tea break they found that the volunteer had indeed managed to get two cups of tea per tea bag – simply by cutting tea bags in half with scissors!
Most people would assume that the ladder man had the most dangerous job, but in fact the volunteer footing the ladder is most at risk. One year while struggling to put up a final tree in very windy conditions the ladder man slipped and fell on the volunteer at the foot of the ladder who broke his fall, the tree fell on the third team member cutting his head!