Seattle’s Candy Cane Lane has a long history, returns on Saturday
Nov 29, 2023, 8:27 AM | Updated: 8:46 am
(Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)
One of Seattle’s most beloved and historic holiday displays – Candy Cane Lane in Ravenna – will open this coming Saturday. KIRO Newsradio stopped by Tuesday night to get a sneak peek at preparations, and to hear from the volunteer neighbors who are helping carry on a tradition now nearly 80 years old and counting.
Candy Cane Lane is a little different. It’s a little more organic, a little more people-powered. And it’s been around awhile, since at least 1948, based on some old newspaper clippings – though there is some mystery around that exact date.
In other holiday light history, this year is the 50th anniversary of the holiday season of 1973. After the Yom Kippur War in Israel and Egypt in October of that year, an OPEC oil embargo followed, and America suffered a serious energy crisis. Gas prices went through the roof, and all over the United States, Americans were told to tone down and even entirely forego outdoor Christmas lights to save precious energy.
Locally, Seattle City Light worked with the media to encourage customers to skip lighted outdoor decorations. In November 1973, the Seattle Times published a long quote attributed to Mike Sharrar, coordinator of community affairs for Seattle City Light:
During the present energy crisis, Seattle City Light is discouraging any use of outdoor Christmas lighting. We hope that most of our customers, realizing the urgency of the present situation, will return to some of the older, more traditional forms of honoring the Christmas season and forego outdoor lighting. All government buildings and agencies, many community groups, retail stores and businesses have voluntarily decided not to light up this year. We hope their leadership, plus the pressure of public opinions from private citizens, will discourage the use of Christmas lighting throughout the area. Ultimately, indoor or outdoor lighting is the choice of every individual. At City Light we can only recommend wise usage, and trust the good sense of our citizen-owners to do what they think is best. The continued use of outdoor lighting through Seattle, as in the past, would further reduce or energy resources.
Even President Richard Nixon weighed in when he flipped the switch on the National Christmas Tree, to illuminate just a single light where in previous years there had been thousands of festive electric bulbs.
“In a way, I suppose one could say with only one light on the tree, this will be a very dreary Christmas,” President Nixon told the audience gathered for the tree lighting. “But we know that isn’t true, because the spirit of Christmas is not measured by the number of lights on a tree, the spirit of Christmas is measured by the love that each of us has in his heart for his family, his friends, for his fellow Americans and for people all over the world.”
Fortunately, no one at any level of government is calling for toned-down Christmas lights this year.
More Feliks: Burien hero dies before receiving medal
And this comes as especially good news on Candy Cane Lane, a neighborhood display that involves about 25 homes on a short little street called Park Road, which is off Ravenna Boulevard around 21st Avenue NE, just north of Greek Row, and down the hill toward University Village. Visitors can drive through Candy Cane Lane in their cars (turn off your headlights, please) or walk through on the sidewalk, or on the roadway itself during three designated walk-only nights.
How and when Candy Cane Lane came to be, and who exactly founded it, are a bit of a mystery.
The first year might have been 1948. That’s when holiday lights on Park Road were first mentioned in the Seattle Times as part of the newspaper’s “Christmas Trail” contest. One version of the origin story goes back a few years earlier than that and has a non-lighted decoration effort on Park Road emerging during World War II, when fear of enemy attack, and not an energy crisis, dictated evening blackouts. A big book of neighborhood notes and meeting minutes that might offer more details on the history went missing several years ago. Among other facts, that book might reveal if Candy Cane Lane also went dark in 1973.
Whenever it happened and whoever the players were, Candy Cane Lane’s history does seem related to outdoor holiday decoration contests the Seattle Times ran every year (except during World War II) from 1927 to 1968. Candy Cane Lane won accolades in that contest on many occasions from the late 1940s into the 1960s.
The signature piece of physical evidence that ties the history together – and which is the inspiration for the name – are the six-foot long metal candy canes on display, one at each house, on Candy Cane Lane.
Maggie Sweeney has lived on Candy Cane Lane since 2001.
“If you look, every house will have a candy cane and it looks just like an old metal pipe that’s painted,” Sweeney told KIRO Newsradio. “And when people move, that is the one thing that stays with the house. Many of us have these original old candy canes, and that is how [it] got to be called Candy Cane Lane.”
Maggie’s husband David Sweeney brought the couple’s candy cane out from their garage.
“It’s made out of a six-inch stove pipe and we got it from the owner of the house when we moved in,” David Sweeney told KIRO Newsradio as he displayed the vintage hand-made decoration. “So it might be 60 years old at this point, I honestly don’t know.
“It’s red and white striped,” Sweeney continued. “Every year, I threaten to repaint it and fix it up, yet I don’t seem to find the time, and then out it goes again.”
The annual installation of the street’s famous icon takes mere moments, Sweeney said.
“So you just put a spike in the ground, and then you just put the candy cane over the top,” Sweeney explained. “And that’s what people see when they drive through the circle.”
The candy canes are a remarkable relic, apparently made from off-the-shelf straight and elbow sections of stovepipe, the kind used to connect a wood stove to a chimney, and probably picked up at a hardware store nearly 80 years ago. It’s these candy canes, Maggie Sweeney says, that figure into the origin story related to World War II, when lighted decorations were forbidden.
Along with one official candy cane, each house also has a particular set of decorations created, installed and maintained by the family that lives in that house. Think painted plywood reindeer, strings of colored lights, modern inflatables and other sorts of traditional household holiday decorations.
The centerpiece of Candy Cane Lane is a large community-built decoration in the traffic circle at the top of the street. This show-stopper features a big rotating structure like a carousel, spun by an electric motor hidden in the holly bush, with colorful decorative panels and lighting (this year the theme is The Nutcracker; it changes each year based on multiple sets of decorative panels). To add aural entertainment to the visual splendor, there are Christmas carols playing on a six-CD changer and blasting from outdoor speakers at two locations along the lane.
If all of this sounds sophisticated and high-tech, then this story has failed to communicate the true nature of Candy Cane Lane.
Maggie Sweeney says Candy Cane Lane is, more than anything, “homespun.”
“If you’re looking for a big light display, this is not the place to go,” Sweeney said. “You’re going to come here for tradition. You’re going to come here for community. Most of the people walk through” and get hot cocoa from the little store across Ravenna Boulevard.
“We like to pass out candy canes,” Sweeney continued. “One thing we don’t do is we don’t accept any money. We’ve really stuck to the whole non-commercial aspect of being just a neighborhood place.”
“And we use LED lights now, in case anybody’s wondering,” Sweeney added. “At one point, someone accused us of being ‘the Las Vegas of Seattle.’”
Like Sin City, Candy Cane Lane is not without its darker moments, such as the theft on three separate occasions of an inflatable Grinch; none of the three has ever been recovered. But, for the most part, say the neighbors, Candy Cane Lane is a happy place each year, mostly untouched by the mayhem of the outside world.
One of the most amazing things about Candy Cane Lane is the fact that it is all run by volunteers and that somehow, the tradition has carried on year after year for decades. Instructions about how to set up or about what goes where are mostly not written down anywhere. This neighborhood project, which nobody alive can remember how it got started, somehow survives and thrives and gradually evolves behind the scenes and then reappears, pretty much looking exactly like it did the year before, in time for every holiday season.
And though Candy Cane Lane is fiercely non-commercial, they do collect canned and other non-perishable food items for charity and brought in two tons of food last year for the University Food Bank.
Joseph Manalang is another Candy Cane Lane neighbor and one of the organizers. Back in October 2009, he and his wife – who was pregnant with twins at the time – unsuspectingly bought their house on Park Road.
The couple was told about Candy Cane Lane, but it seems like they didn’t really “get it.”
“I’m like, ‘Sure I like Christmas. I’ll put up some lights,’” Manalang told KIRO Newsradio, describing how he responded to the real estate agent that October.
Then, December came. The couple wasn’t planning to move into their new home until January, but they stopped by to the holiday event in person.
“I had no idea until we walked the street what was going on,” Manalang said. “And we were like, ‘Oh no, what did we get ourselves into?”
What they got into was Candy Cane Lane, and both Joseph and his wife fell in love with living there. They are now among the biggest boosters of the work parties that have happened the past two weekends, and that will culminate this Saturday morning in time for a 4:00 p.m. official start on Saturday afternoon.
One thing that emerges in speaking with Maggie Sweeney, Joseph Manalang and several other neighbors who stopped by is that Park Road is a very special neighborhood not just during the holidays but year-round.
And the roots of all that specialness, what can only be described as “community,” is all because of a Christmas light display that dates back at least as far as the Truman administration.
“We say ‘Yeah, it’s a gift to the community’ to give something for people to celebrate, but I think it’s really a gift to us,” Manalang said. “Because of Candy Cane Lane, we all come together, we all decorate our houses, we all decorate the circle as a community.”
Because of that, we know all of our neighbors,” Manalang continued. “That’s got to be rare in this time in Seattle. Who knows all their neighbors? My kids have been in half these houses. Everybody gets along.”
“I mean, it’s pretty cool,” he said.
And thanks to Joseph Manalang and Maggie Sweeney and their neighbors, all of us get to experience and see our own share of that coolness – that often invisible magic of a strong community – every holiday season, too.
IF YOU GO
Candy Cane Lane opens this Saturday, December 2, 2023 and runs through the evening of January 1, 2024. The lights are turned on from 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and from 4:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays.
They collect donations of food and other non-perishable items for the University Food Bank.
Walk-only nights will take place on three Thursdays: December 7, December 14 and December 21. The Husky Marching Band will perform on Thursday, December 7.
For more information, please visit the Candy Cane Lane Facebook page.
You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.