Two-year-old Alexandrea Overkamp was supposed to wait 10 seconds before pressing the button to light the New Haven Christmas tree. She lasted seven.
“I like pressing buttons,” she said simply.
The annual New Haven Tree Lighting Celebration, presented by the City of New Haven Office of Cultural Affairs and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, drew an estimated 3,000 people to the New Haven Green last night. Through the tree itself, decorated with 20,000 energy-efficient LED lights, may have been the main draw, a slew of family-friendly activities and entertainment began at 4 p.m and kept attendees milling about for hours. While some people complained about the rainy weather, most interviewed said they enjoyed the event, which was free to the public.
“It’s a great way to kick off the Christmas season,” said local Arthur McCormack. He added: “I think I’d prefer that it snowed rather than rained though.”
Deputy Director of Parks and Squares Christy Hass said the ceremony drew a larger crowd than in previous years, noting the importance of this event to the New Haven community.
Said Hass: “It makes people feel very comfortable and at home on the Green.”
The festivities included choir performances, a mechanical-animal safari ride, a carousel and the opportunity to talk to Santa Claus, as well as numerous arts and crafts and free apple cider and hot chocolate. Twenty minutes before the tree, donated by St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church, was lit, the cast of “A Civil War Christmas,” a play currently showing at the Long Wharf Theatre, performed a repertoire of carols, while children scribbled letters to Santa and glued buttons on paper snowman ornaments.
A highlight for many attendees was the arrival of Santa on the back of a New Haven fire truck. Children and adults alike cheered at the man’s entrance and many moved to meet the truck on Temple Street.
“Welcome!” said Santa bellowed. “How is everybody doing tonight?” He was, however, unable to continue greeting the crowd because of a sound system malfunction. He resorted to a good standby: jolly waves and big smiles.
But Santa was not the only attraction. Anja Nikkel, 3, who said Christmas was her favorite time of year, was more excited by an appearance by Frosty the Snowman. “Snowman! Mommy, take me to the snowman!” she squealed, tugging her mother Sarah, a New Haven resident, by the arm.
After an enthusiastic meeting with Frosty, the young girl made a beeline for the carousel on the other side of the Green, leaving her mother running after her. (At least one call was made over the loudspeaker for missing children over the course of the evening.)
Resident Jacqueline Robinson said she anticipated having a hard time convincing her daughter, Onjya, to leave.
“Her eyes lit up,” Robinson said, noting that her daughter was too awed by the lights and people to pass by the festivities.
A favorite of most children interviewed was the animal safari, an attraction that allowed them to ride around a circuit on the back of a mechanical bear, tiger or reindeer. In one family, there was some contention as to which animal was the “coolest,” but four out of five children in the line said they hoped to ride the bear.
A few parents said they appreciated that the event was free of charge, saying that in light of the recent financial downturn it was nice, for a change, to entertain their families without spending money.
“I’m glad to have something on the Green for families to attend without having to worry about the cost,” New Haven resident Vivian Dildy said.
And as evidenced by the smile of her 8-year-old daughter, Kayla, the event was priceless.