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Dec. 8, 2019 | Sunday
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Holiday House Tour: It takes a village
Decorations over the fireplace at “King’s Landing” in NOTL during the Holiday House Tour in 2019. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now)

The Rotary Holiday House Tour is one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s most anticipated seasonal events bringing close to 4,000 people through expertly decorated homes and landmarks in town – planning begins as early as January to get the two-day spectacle off the ground.

It may seem as simple as asking residents to open their homes for the weekend and allowing designers to deck their halls for the holidays. But if it weren’t for the dedicated committee putting in months of planning, the town-wide holiday open house would never have become the success it is today.

“After the tour ends, we have a post tour meeting, and then we start again in January looking for houses and getting our committee set up. It really never ends - it’s a 12-month commitment,” said this year’s chair of the house tour committee and Rotary Club member Lorna Penman.

The Holiday House Tour will be on Friday, Dec. 6 and Saturday, Dec. 7. Penman said it’s one of the Rotary’s biggest fundraisers of the year. Drawing in 3,800 people – she said the annual event has grown from its humble beginnings to one of the most attended holiday house tours in the Niagara region.

Last year, the tour raised almost $100,000, Penman said. The money raised goes directly into the Rotary, which funds charities and organizations both locally and internationally.

While the tour is organized by the Rotary Club of Niagara-on-the-Lake, 250 volunteers help pull it off. Not to mention the skillful design talents of the four local organizations, and this year two homeowners, who tirelessly design and decorate each home.

Barbara Bedell of the Garden Club of Niagara said members have been decorating for the house tours for at least nine years. Each year most of the 67 members set to decking out the McFarland House “to the nines.” The garden club also takes on an extra house for the tour, she said, which is managed by about six to eight of the more senior members of the group.

“Every year we try to make the (McFarland) house a whole new design. Our extra home is for probably the more senior designers. We start planning in June,” she said.

At that time, the club begins gardening and coming up with a concept for the design. This year, she said the theme for the McFarland House is “Christmas Carols of the 1800s.”

The key to the garden club’s designs is the use of fresh materials, Bedell said.

“We’ll go out and pick them fresh – so we’ll probably start the Monday before,” she said. “Everything’s fresh, we don’t use any artificial materials.”

The garden club will also decorate 31 Prideaux St., the home of Niagara-on-the-Lake Realty co-owner Tom Elltoft.

He said he’s been involved with the house tours for several years - connecting the Rotary Club with homeowners and suggesting potential appropriate houses.

“In the industry I have access to that, I suggest homes that may be appropriate, or they will approach me and tell me they’re looking for a certain style of home and I may be able to find that for them,” he said.

After the completion of a three-year home renovation project, he said it was his turn to open his doors.

And though he jested the thought of having thousands of people walking through his house might be a bit “terrifying,” he said his has always been a “welcoming home.”

“We’re a leave your shoes on kind of home,” he said, adding he was happy to be able to contribute.

“It’s such a great cause. These garden tours and house tours we have all provide great funding for things – whether it’s Rotary in this situation or the Shaw Guild. It’s a great way to show off our town and the pride people have in sort of maintaining and preserving the town,” he said.

“It’s why people love it here.”

As for anyone thinking of offering up their homes for future house tours, Elltoft said it’s been a good experience.

“For people coming after us – there’s no reason to be afraid of it. It’s been a positive experience. They’re well prepared and very considerate with your time ... I think it’s really good for the town.”

Aside from Elltoft’s home, there are five other houses on the regular tour. The special VIP evening tour of the McArthur Estate has been sold out since October, Penman said. There are also several “auxiliary” stops on the tour: the McFarland House, the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum, and RiverBrink Fine Art Museum will also be decked out for the tour.

In celebration of St. Mark’s Anglican Church’s 225th anniversary, St. Andrew’s Manse on Simcoe Street has also been added.

It’s the quality of the decorations and variety of houses that Penman said keeps people coming back. And she said social media and proper marketing has played a large role in helping to get the word out.

“We couldn’t have a tour without the homes and we certainly couldn’t do this without the decorators.”

This year the decorators are Mori Gardens Design and Garden Centre, Regal Florists and Garden Centre, The Garden Club of Niagara, and a new decorator, Spade and Sparrow. Two of the homes will be decorated by the homeowners themselves.

Tickets are selling fast, and can be purchased at https://niagaraonthelakerotary.ca/page/events-tickets.

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