New Haven gets in the holiday spirit

Unseasonably warm weather drew more than 1,000 children and parents to the city’s tree lighting celebration Thursday night on the New Haven Green.

In addition to the tree lighting, the festival featured carousel rides, holiday drinks and snacks, and three choirs performing holiday songs — all free of charge. And the weather Thursday — which reached 60 during the day — led to a large crowd on the Green, one of the event’s co-hosts, WTNH metereologist Gil Simmons said.

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Right before the tree was lit, Mayor John DeStefano Jr., made an unannounced appearance, thanked the tree’s donors, Frederick and Sarah Peters of Shelton, Conn., and led the crowd in a countdown to the lighting.

Christy Hass, the deputy director of New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees, said this year’s event drew a larger crowd than the previous year’s. She attributed the increase to the mild weather and the free activities and food that she said likely attracted families looking for an inexpensive way to celebrate the holidays, especially in a struggling economy.

Simmons, who has co-hosted the tree lighting ceremony for the past three years, said the event provided New Haven residents the opportunity to enjoy holiday festivities without breaking the bank.

“It’s a great thing in these times because it’s free,” he said in an interview.

Indeed, Erica Darden, 27, an early childhood educator who attended the event with her family, said the free festival provides a “great experience” during tough economic times.

TD Bank, a sponsor of the event, passed out elf hats and candy canes — about 1,000 in just one hour, TD Banknorth branch manager Isa Larue said.

Mechanical animal rides were among the celebration’s most popular attractions.. Smiling from behind her red-and-green elf hat, 9-year-old Valamae Jenkins said she enjoyed the mechanical reindeer ride. Like the dozen other children interviewed, Jenkins rattled off a long wish-list of Christmas presents.

“I want a [PlayStation Portable] and games — that’s the most important part,” she said. “And I want a drum set and a guitar.”

No guitar, her mother said in response — the drum set will be loud enough.

Most of the more than 100 children waiting in the line to see Santa Claus said they are hoping for electronics, such as computers, video game consoles and video games, for Christmas.

Choirs from Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School and Fair Haven School, as well as Unity Boys Choir, performed for the crowd. WTNH televised the performances.

Hass said that while the event took two-and-a-half days to set up, the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees had worked for five weeks to decorate the 65-foot-tall Norway spruce. About 20,000 red, blue, green and yellow LED lights are strung around the tree.

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