The lights on the balcony on the top floor of Queen Street’s Ashbury Place apartments make a bold pronouncement to the city of Winnipeg.
They tell people driving down Route 90 something the radio stations have already made obvious with their musical selections. Each year, when they first glint and glimmer, the lights draw a line in the snow and remind those who notice them that one year is ending and another is beginning. They make people point. They make people stare. They make people remember. "Hark," the lights shout. "Christmastime is here."
They do all of that in just six capital letters: H-U-M-B-U-G.
The first time the lights glowed was in 1974, shortly after Sidney and Margaret Farmer moved into their apartment on Queen Street. At the old house, on nearby Duffield Street, the living room was populated at Christmastime by reindeer, snowmen and streamers strung from corner to corner, a yuletide scene visible from the sidewalk.
Sidney Thomas Farmer loved many things: he loved his family, first and foremost. He loved curling. He loved his job at the post office, where for 40 years he sorted mail quickly and accurately.
"It was important to him that all those letters and Christmas cards would get to the right spot," says his son, also named Sidney Thomas Farmer.
Another thing Sidney Farmer loved was Christmas, and celebration in general. Six storeys above the sidewalk, in his and Margaret’s new apartment, he sought a way to show that love, and to make people laugh.
"He wanted something that people would remember," his son, now 72, says. "He wanted something to stand out."
So the elder Farmer, who served in the navy during the Second World War as a leading torpedo seaman, gave his brother-in-law Art Robb a call. Robb, an airline mechanic, was good with his hands and with wires. After a few discussions, he got to work on a strange one-off project: six wooden capital letters, with holes for changeable bulbs, the wiring hidden on the back.
When Robb finished the letters, Farmer couldn’t help but grin at his little joke come to life, his son recalls. Here was a man who was the antithesis of Ebenezer Scrooge, the angry, miserly antihero of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol who needs to be reminded of the spirit of Christmas by supernatural visitors.
Humbug is an angry word Scrooge deploys to make clear his displeasure with Christmas; Farmer thought it would be funny, a little ironic, to put that word up on his balcony — a contradiction of Scrooge’s bane set in twinkling lights.
His son, who worked as a bakery supervisor for Safeway, opened the company’s store at Madison Square, directly across from his dad’s sign, and could see it from the parking lot.
"My dad was the furthest thing from a Scrooge," he says. Even if he had some right to be.
A decade before the move to Queen Street, Farmer developed bone cancer in his leg. In a bleak prognosis, doctors told him prior to an operation that if he woke up and his leg was gone, he’d have the cancer beat. If his leg was still there, he would have six months to live.
He woke up with two legs, and lived for another 47 years.
That might help explain why celebrating Christmas was important to the son of a blacksmith. He had come out on the other side of a dark abyss and understood the value of a couple of lights.
When, in 2002, his health worsened, Farmer moved into Deer Lodge Centre. That same year, in October, Margaret died at the age of 78. At the centre, the younger Sidney Farmer and his sister spoke to the chaplain about Christmas, how the time of year meant so much to their father.
They brought him rum and eggnog, shortbread cookies, set out a few poinsettia plants in his room. Their father would go down to the lobby to hear the carollers sing as frequently as he could.
But those six capital letters did not join Farmer at his new abode: the apartment building’s caretaker asked if they could stay, because, as Farmer had hoped, they had brought joy and laughter, not to mention a modicum of local fame, to an otherwise unspectacular balcony in an otherwise average building.
He and his son agreed, and each winter since, the letters have gone up as though Farmer never left. (They’ve moved up to a balcony of a suite on the 11th floor; the tenant did not answer after several knocks.)
Over the decades, one man’s whim became a city’s inside joke, and one family’s holiday tradition became an annually anticipated addition to that city’s skyline. Each year, when HUMBUG goes up, people take their private notice. Others take to their social media accounts to alert those in on the joke that HUMBUG is back, and thus, winter, and thus, another year come and gone.
Local brewery One Great City, located across the street in Madison Square, released a special beer — the Humbug Sour — a few weeks ago.
Oddly, much of the sign’s fame has accrued since July 2011, when Sidney Farmer died at the age of 90. Even after a life well- and long-lived, it was and still is difficult for his family to fathom a holiday season without their patriarch presiding.
"I do remember the sign from when I was a kid," says the elder Sidney Farmer’s grandson, 42-year-old Mike Halprin. When he, his sister, and his parents drove to Winnipeg each winter from Canmore, Alta., to visit Nana and Poppa, those six capital letters would greet them.
Some years, they’d arrive at two in the morning. But Margaret and Sidney would be wide awake; they’d put their grandchildren on their laps and give them hugs and kisses as if it were dinnertime.
Halprin, who works as a firefighter, gets messages from friends and family in Winnipeg each year when the sign goes up; in a way, it’s how people say happy holidays. But two provinces away, he doesn’t see it as often as he’d like.
Fortunately, his father started CanSign, a still-active sign-making company in Canmore, Alta., in 1979.
"I had been thinking of making my own for years," Halprin says. He just needed a nudge.
In 2019, while rescuing people from a house fire in Canmore, Halprin was concussed. He’s still recovering from it today, and as Christmas 2020 neared, was in what he calls a slump.
His fiancée knew he needed a boost. "She said we should make a sign to honour Poppa," Halprin says. "She knew it would mean a lot to me, and when she suggested it, a light went on in my head."
The sign-making company’s graphic designer whipped up an H, a U, an M, a B, a U and a G, and the couple did all the other labour themselves.
When the project was finished, they put four consonants and two vowels up on the front deck of their house at the end of a sleepy street in Exshaw, about 10 minutes away from Canmore.
Halprin knew from experience not to stare at the lights from up close. So he and his fiancée turned around, walked 20 or 30 paces, then spun around again to look at what they’d built.
"As soon as I saw it, I teared up," he says. "I thought of Nana and Poppa, my cousins, and Uncle Sid. It brought tears to my eyes and flooded my heart with emotion right away."
This winter, as Sid Farmer’s HUMBUG sign glimmers in Winnipeg for the 48th Christmas, Mike Halprin’s version in Exshaw is back for its second.
"Every time I come home and see the sign, I get this amazing flash of Poppa, and his ear-to-ear grin," says Halprin. "I can hear him laughing."
All that, in just six letters.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.