Posted On December 1, 2017 By In Top Stories With 341 Views

Festive Highlights on the Southern Gulf Islands

by Janice Henshaw – 

As you relax on the ferry while travelling from Swartz Bay to the mainland this December, you may look out the windows and think that the Southern Gulf Islands look chilly and isolated at this time of year. In reality, there is a whole host of activities going on behind all those evergreen trees and cozy cabins. If you have some time and wanderlust, you might like to check out some of the events and good cheer that keep these islands warm during the shortest days of the year.

Any child who has grown up on the Southern Gulf Islands knows that, every December, they can expect a visit from Santa, who arrives not by reindeer but by motor boat! As it has done for the past 60 years, the International Lions Club’s Christmas Ship cruises up from Bellingham, Washington, bringing Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and a boatload of Christmas magic. Santa’s band of pirates, elves, and clowns disembark to entertain the children waiting excitedly on the sometimes chilly, but always cheery, docks. Each child gets a turn to chat with Santa and receives a gift.

The Christmas Ship is often escorted by the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue high-performance boat, and, at the docks, volunteer firefighters add to the excitement with their shiny trucks. At Hope Bay, on North Pender Island, while waiting for the ship there is carol singing and music. Dockside Realty and Hope Bay Store provide hot dogs and hot chocolate to warm up the kids.

If you are travelling by ferry at night, you will see the brightly coloured lights of the Pender Island Lions Club CARE Tree. Each year the club has a tree-lighting ceremony accompanied by music and carols. And, on New Year’s Eve, there has been an annual Magic Lake Lantern Festival since 1999.

Mayne Island resident Lisa Horvath says that one of the most magical events that take place on her Island is in the Japanese Garden, which was created to commemorate the Japanese Canadians who settled and worked on the Island between 1900 and 1942. Every Christmas, elves decorate the garden with an impressive display of festive lights. The opening is celebrated with warm refreshments and carol singing. Other festivities on Mayne Island include a Lion’s sponsored turkey bingo, a single seniors’ Christmas dinner and a parade of lights. On Christmas Eve, islanders gather to sing carols around a bonfire in Miner’s Bay.

Sometimes described as the most remote of the Southern Gulf Islands, Saturna Island welcomes the Christmas Ship and puts on a Christmas Concert. They also celebrate the Solstice with an all-day bonfire in Thompson Park. Winter debris is collected and burned to encourage the sun to come back for another year.

On Galiano Island, the Galiano Club and Community host a Winter Solstice Feast that they describe as “something splendid,” as many residents are “foodies of the first rank.” The scrumptious dinner highlights the Food Program’s harvest, which often includes homemade pickles, desserts made from Island fruits and delicious soups and bread made by Club volunteers. To celebrate New Year’s Day, there is a fun-filled polar bear swim held at Montague Provincial Park. “Everyone gets dressed up in crazy costumes,” says resident Carol Robson. “There is a big bonfire and hot drinks for everyone.” Participants raise money from sponsors, which goes to charity. “There is quite a competition to make the most money! The turnout gets bigger every year. Young and old get ducked!”

Salt Spring is the largest of the Southern Gulf Islands, and the month of December is full of winter celebrations for islanders and visitors alike. Resident Jill Tarswell provided a brief summary of some of their events:

November 25 to December 22: Wintercraft at Mahon Hall for artisan gift shopping

December 1: Fulford Hall Christmas Craft Fair and Beaver Point Christmas Craft Fair

December 2: Santa arrives by air at the Coast Guard Dock in Ganges.

December 6: Annual Chili Cook-Off in Centennial Park, Ganges

December 9, 16, 23: Saturday Christmas Market outdoors at Centennial Park, Ganges

December 9: Santa arrives again in Ganges, this time on the Lions’ Santa Ship from Bellingham.

December 9 to 10: Salt Spring Singers present Yuletide Fires at Artspring: some of the most beautiful music ever composed proclaims Christmas and the Solstice. Join us to celebrate the winter season with sacred pieces by Bach, Barber, Britten, and Handel, traditional arrangements by Willcocks, Rutter, Davies, and a wonderful new Suite composed by Tate with lyrics written by Emily Carr.

December 16: Songs & Stories of the Season performed by popular local readers and singers at the United Church, Ganges.

December 18: Merry Monday in Fulford Harbour with a bonfire and sing-along led by folk legend Valdy.

December 20 to 23: Newman Family Productions presents Christmas with Scrooge, a Salt Spring tradition since 1970!

So there you have it, a taste of some of the joyful events and traditions that are taking place in the Southern Gulf Islands during the month of December. I hope you too will enjoy some of the magic of Christmas. And, for goodness’ sake, on New Year’s Day, watch out for all of those Polar Bears!



Your West Coast Culture. A magazine about the people and places that make the Saanich Peninsula the little piece of paradise we call home.

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