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SickKids holiday lighting display still chugging after 30 years
4 minute read

SickKids holiday lighting display still chugging after 30 years


The SickKids holiday choo-choo has been a special sight on University Ave. for three decades. Here’s the story behind our mini spectacle of lights (and what came before it too).

When strolling along University Ave. during the holiday season, SickKids is always a special sight.

For about three decades, the hospital’s beloved holiday lights have beckoned visitors, staff and passersby. The dazzling train display, with its spinning wheels and waving teddy bears, is also a bright beacon of hope for Toronto and all of Ontario.

So how did our colourful choo-choo come to be? To answer this question, we have to go back to the beginning.

The year was 1951 and SickKids had just moved into its brand new – and current – location at 555 University Ave. It was a prime location on Toronto’s grand boulevard and the holidays were a perfect time for SickKids to share its excitement for the new building and the festive time of year.

The 1950s started with Santa’s Village atop the University Ave. entrance canopy, complete with Christmas trees, reindeer, sleigh and a giant depiction of a jolly and waving Saint Nick.

The 1960s continued with the same theme, with more holiday lighting and décor on the hospital exterior walls and front lawn, including a Christmas tree several storeys tall.

Chuffy train
Chuffy was a pretend steam-engine train that delighted patients and families.

The 1970s ushered in a new era – Chuffy. Chuffy was a 70-foot-long pretend steam-engine train, with a Styrofoam Santa at the wheel and holiday messages at the front and back. Its creation took six weeks and 35 employees from multiple groups, including Visual Education, Plant and Engineering, Housekeeping, and Carpenter, Machine and Paint shops. Chuffy charmed both kids and adults for more than a decade before being donated to the former Bloorview Children’s Hospital (now known as Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital).

The 1980s saw a different approach to the holidays with the creation of a new electrical lighting display, featuring angels and snowflakes, mounted on the north, west and south sides of the building. Funded by a group of anonymous donors, the display was powered by 3,925 bulbs and lit up from the end of November until Jan. 1. Sometimes the kids got to throw the switch.

That brings us to the late 1980s, when the holiday lighting above the University Ave. canopy we know and love to this day debuted. It also has the distinction of being SickKids’ longest-running exterior holiday display. The story goes something like this.

A former Director of Public Affairs at SickKids attended the Winter Festival of Lights in Niagara Falls and was so impressed with the lighting displays she suggested SickKids do something similar. The hospital got in touch with the company that worked with Niagara Parks, Alderbrook Industries Ltd., and commissioned one especially for SickKids.

The unique design appears to be a nod to SickKids’ history in a couple of ways. First, the teddy bear is a long-running symbol of SickKids’ fundraising campaigns. Secondly, the choo-choo train appeals to almost all kids (and adults too) – and also a nice homage to the days of Chuffy.   

The bright lights of the current artwork are activated from the day of the Toronto Santa Claus parade in November until the second week of January. Aside from a lighting upgrade, the University Avenue-spectacle has kept chugging along since it was first illuminated more than 30 years ago.

Whether you walk by the teddy train in a hurry or take a moment to gaze upon its friendly face, we hope the SickKids holiday choo-choo continues to puff its way into the hearts and imaginations of everyone with a holiday dream for years to come.     

SickKids would like to thank the following people for their help with this story: David Wencer, Richard Zajac, Messias Farias, Joseph Natalie, Sarah Wood and Steve Shear.

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