Amid a Christmas bunny village, a carousel and a Santa photo booth, New Haven residents gathered in celebration for the annual Holiday Tree-lighting ceremony on the New Haven Green Thursday night.
A crowd of about 7,500 attended the ceremony, said Christy Hass, deputy director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees. But for thousands in attendance, this year’s celebration was particularly meaningful as the city’s budget woes threatened to pull the plug on 30,000 red, blue, white and orange LED decorative lights.
“It’s affordable, good, family fun,” said Hass, who said the increase in attendance is an indication that people enjoyed themselves in previous years. Two of three people interviewed had attended the tree lighting each year since its inauguration a decade ago.
The boisterous crowd this year even exceeded the New Haven Department of Cultural Affairs’ projected attendance by 2,500, Lamb said.
“It’s nice, good entertainment and you don’t have to worry about stupidities like young thugs” said Yvonne Lopez, a resident of New Haven and mother of two who attended.
According to Michelle Bailey, another New Haven mother of two, her kids enjoy coming every year to drop off letters in Santa’s mailbox, a tradition at the festival.
This year’s tree, which was planted in 1964, was donated by John and Lisa Gagne and is 65 feet tall.
In addition to customary tree lighting, residents enjoyed two novelties.
The Christmas bunny village was a personal contribution from Hass. Because the rabbit in a glass cage she brought last year attracted so many children, she obtained more rabbits from her brother, a rabbit farmer in Massachusetts.
“The rabbit was so popular last year that kids had their noses pressed against the glass cage,” Hass said.
Children this year were similarly mesmerized by the fuzzy, white creatures that were fenced in with mini-houses and colorful Christmas lights.
Although many children stood on haystacks to get a better view of these, they were not allowed to pet the small animals.
“There are just too many kids and the rabbits will freak,” Hass said.
Attentive children could also rest on benches made from last year’s Christmas tree by City Bench, a company that turns local trees into furniture, and listen to a Parks Department volunteer read holiday-themed books contributed by New Haven Reads, a charity that promotes literacy in the city.
The group brought 200 books to give out for free and distributed half their supply only 40 minutes into the festival, said Catherine Strickland, assistant director of New Haven Reads.
Other activities at the festival included a Santa photo booth, a crafts tent organized by the Parks Department and carnival rides such as a carousel. A choir from the Nathan Hale School performed Christmas carols and Ward 22 Alderman Greg Morehead presented citations to the Gagnes family for the tree and People’s United Bank for its contribution to the ceremony.
The city’s recent financial troubles, an $8 million budget gap, almost prevented the continuation of the holiday festivities Gil Simmons, a WTNH News Channel 8 meteorologist who has hosted the holiday program since 2006, told the crowd.
“But People’s United Bank got it together for us,” he added, referencing the company which contributed $20,000 toward the cost of putting up the tree.
According to Barbara Lamb, director of Department of Cultural Affairs, her department still spent about $12,000 to $13,000 on the ceremony, and the tighter budget did not end up affecting the ceremony in any way.
The festival culminated with the lighting of the Holiday Tree at around 6 p.m. in order to coincide with WTNH’s evening news program, Lamb said.
The tree will remain on the Green until Jan. 7th.