Merry and bright: Braving the cold and lighting up the holiday nights

Amherstburg River Lights Festival welcomes visitors from near and far for its 12th year in Ontario

What started as a project to get people out of their homes in the wintry holiday season has become a hallmark tradition for thousands every year in Ontario.

Now its 12th year, the Amherstburg River Lights Festival runs for a six-week stint from mid-November to early January and attracts close to 40,000 visitors.

That’s nearly double the town’s population.

“Picture walking through hundreds of LED light displays along a riverfront,” says Sarah Van Grisven, special events coordinator for the festival. “There are themed display areas, a life-size gingerbread house, and fireworks to top it off that reflect beautifully off the river water.”

Kick-off night for the festival is truly a party, with the mayor taking part in the countdown and pressing the “on” button for the entire solar-powered Christmas light festival.

“We continue to grow every year as people get their families involved,” says Van Grisven. “The festival has a big draw for couples, too.”

Hopeless romantics take note—there have even been proposals in the past at the River Lights festival. And while the festival is steadily growing every year and extending its demographic, Van Grisven says it’s important to Amherstburg that it maintains its smalltown vibe.

“We really want to be that cozy classic town to visit during the holidays.”

Enbridge has been a title sponsor of the River Lights Festival since 2014, and gave $15,000 this year to fund the festival’s opening night. Funding goes toward supporting the fireworks, outdoor movie, hot chocolate, cookie decorating, and more.

The vast majority of the elaborate light displays are powered by solar-sensored LED lights. Since 2002, Enbridge has committed more than $7.8 billion in capital in renewable energy projects, including the nearby 15-megawatt Amherstburg II Solar Project.

In 2016, the River Lights Festival was recognized as one of Ontario’s top 100 festivals.

“We really try to diversify our program offerings so there’s something for everyone,” says Van Grisven. “We have a gingerbread house contest, a 5K Santa Claus run, and even a light display that doubles as a memorial.”

The memorial display area presents a particularly sentimental touch, where families can request light displays to commemorate a lost loved one. Displays are usually in the form of angels, but this year River Lights festival organizers also established a teddy bear-based area dedicated to children.

With so much entertainment to offer the public, it may be surprising that River Lights festival is free of charge for all visitors. It’s not something Van Grisven sees changing anytime soon.

“Sponsorships and donations are vital to both our survival and ability to offer the event for free,” she says.

Life really does take energy, and Van Grisven highlights the lasting memories that an intricate, seemingly unending row of lights can give to families.

“People can get so busy in the hustle and bustle; the River Lights Festival brings the holiday spirit back. It definitely facilitates the family feeling that we all strive for during this time of year.”