Lighting It Up

C hristmas comes but once a year, it’s been said, but you can see it coming for months.

A 60-plus foot tall pine tree is lugged to downtown New Haven from some suburb or other. It is festooned with small colored light bulbs, while other evidence of the imminent holiday season begins to appear—the big Hanukkah candle display, banners, ribbons on the light poles…

Then, always on a Thursday evening, horses and reindeer and elves and jolly men in red suits magically appear, surrounded by throngs of children and grown-ups, sipping hot drinks and slurping candy canes and listening to seasonal carols while they stand in line to ride on exotic animals or sit on the lap of a visitor from the North Pole.

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Just in time for the opening of the 5:30 p.m. local news, everyone counts down from ten and the tree erupts in glorious light. That glow is sustained right through the end of December. It effects a major change on downtown—where we look, how we feel, where we shop.

The annual Tree Lighting on New Haven Green actually falls a little later this year than usual. Often, it’s been in late November. And considering that holiday decorations went up in some supermarkets and dollar stores on the day after Halloween—boy, was Thanksgiving miffed!—holding the lighting on Dec. 6 seems positively tardy. Imagine holding a Christmas event less than 20 days before Christmas!

Still, given our recent fair-is-foul-and-foul-is-fair winter weather patterns, which in the past couple of years have given us heavy snow in late October and early November yet precious little in December, all bets are off. Balmy on Monday, rainy on Tuesday, Christmassy on Thursday. Why not?

What’s important is that the Tree Lighting happens early enough to remind us we can do our holiday shopping downtown. Just as assuredly as the Summer Concerts on the Green series are a green light to visit restaurants and boutiques in Ninth Square before the shows, the Tree Lighting is a beacon which brings folks to the center of town in a gift-ing mood.

The Tree Lighting Celebration, no matter which Autumn Thursday it happens upon, has come to follow a familiar format over the past few years. The event is invariably co-hosted by a local TV news personality (this year it’s Channel 8’s Gil Simmons) and a well-known fast-food clown, Ronald McDonald. Area choirs are invited to sing carols: on Thursday, the ensemble will come from Celentano Museum Academy, Wexler-Grant School, Brennan-Rogers School and the Educational Center for the Arts. There will be instrumental music as well, and Christmas pop classics pumped out over a public address system.

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Holiday Treasures in New Haven

A carousel (with traditional horses rather than reindeer) revolves on one side of the main Green, while horse-drawn carriages will circle the whole area offering hay rides. Snowmen, elves and a red-nosed reindeer hobnob with children, and end up in countless photos.

Santa’s house—perhaps it’s just one of his vacation houses—has been stationed on the Green for over a week now, a nondescript small white dwelling which will glow with holiday spirit Thursday as hundreds upon hundreds of good little boys and girls will descend upon it with their Christmas lists. For those who would rather write than recite those lists, there’s a letter-writing area where you can address mail to North Pole and post it to Santa via a gigantic mailbox, even though he’s just a few yards away in his little house.

In the last few years, there’ve also been mechanical animals which kids can ride, free cocoa and candy, food samples from Dunkin’ Donuts and other businesses, and enough random pleasures to transform the Green into a winter wonderland.

It’s a familiar family festival. Yet no Christmas Tree on New Haven Green is exactly like the one before it. Between the vicissitudes of nature and those of the city, circumstances can change. Two years ago, the tree nearly became a casualty of City Hall belt-tightening, until Peoples United Bank contributed funds to continue the tradition. (That charitable arrangement is still in place.) Last year, an overnight fire caused by a vandal burning a Bible melted some lights on the tree and caused a day-long lack of illumination 12 days before Christmas Day. This year’s tree, though being lit later than usual, arrived weeks ahead of schedule from Woodbridge, donated by Maria Zevallos, due to worries about Hurricane Sandy and the snowstorm which followed it.

Also predictable and unpredictable: how local merchants will spread the holiday spirit beyond the Green. If tradition holds, you will be given hot cider to sip and popcorn to chew. Some years, there’ve been contests for the best holiday-themed store window designs. According to Kim Futrell of the City of New Haven Department of Arts, Culture & Tourism, there’s “not a formalized competition to dress up windows,” but a lot of stores have been doing it anyway.

Futrell feels that the Tree Lighting Celebration is “a great activity for children and families.” It’s one which spreads far beyond the Green, or its three churches, or that little Santa house.

New Haven Tree Lighting Celebration
New Haven Green (map)
5:30 p.m. Dec. 6, part of a multi-faceted festival on the Green that runs from 4 to 8 p.m.

Written and photographed by Christopher Arnott.

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Christopher Arnott has written about arts and culture in Connecticut for over 25 years. His journalism has won local, regional and national awards, and he has been honored with an Arts Award from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. He posts daily at his own sites and New Haven Theater Jerk (

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