New Haven Green, let there be light

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Mittened hands reached out for gloved ones, red noses turned up to the unlit star and the half-moon shining above it and brightly colored pom-poms adorning hats swayed as hundreds of people caroled “Jingle Bells.” No, this isn’t a description of Whoville. This was the scene on our own New Haven Green Thursday evening on the occasion of the annual Tree Lighting Celebration.

On the first of December, and coincidentally, one of the first truly cold nights this semester, it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas on the New Haven Green. Streetlights silhouetted the dark shadow of the 65-foot Norway spruce ascending over a populous crowd gathered on the Green. Christie Haas, deputy director of City Hall’s Department of Parks, Recreation, and Trees said the crowd was “one of the largest in years.”

Although some Yale students were present at the event, most Yalies interviewed before Thursday were unaware of the tree or apathetic towards its presence. Jessica Sykes ’14 said, “I don’t care about the tree because I have no attachment to the holiday. I can see its value for community building, but it only builds a community for those who share an attachment to Christmas. It’s fine that they don’t call it a Christmas tree because that is the politically correct thing for them to do. But, there is no way anyone living in modern Western society can separate a huge tree covered with lights from the celebration of Christmas.”

But Navy Encinias ’14 was genuinely pleased upon his discovery of the tree. “I didn’t know about it. But I saw it when I was walking to the new Elm City Market. I really liked it because it is not a very traditional tree because it’s a little bit ugly, and I’ve always liked ugly Christmas trees,” Encinias said.

Most observers asked about the tree’s aesthetic responded enthusiastically, with adjectives like ‘wonderful’ or ‘beautiful.’ One woman, in an aside to her husband, made the point that New Haven’s tree was “better than that one in West Haven.”

Dripping in 30,000 yet-unlit colored lights, the tree is slightly reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, only 60 feet taller. Haas acknowledged that the tree was not completely full and, because of the lights, would be more impressive at night than during the day. She explained that the separation of the tree’s limbs made it easier to decorate and dramatized each individual light.

Haas has the daunting job of selecting the tree each year. Surprisingly, the humongous tree in the middle of the Green today did not grow in a forest tucked somewhere deep in the woods of Maine. Only a few months ago, the tree was firmly rooted in the McDermott family’s front yard in Northford, Conn.

During the year, Haas drives around the local area, searching for good candidate trees. She first spotted the McDermott’s tree about three years ago (she had already picked a fuller tree that year). “The tree was right up against the house,” Haas recalled. “So it was hard to tell what it would look like in the middle of the Green.”

This year, Haas remembered the tree and asked the McDermotts if they would be willing to donate it. Steve McDermott and his wife Marie, a teacher in New Haven, agreed. Around Halloween, workers came to Northford, cut the tree down, put it on a flat bed and propped it back up in New Haven with a crane. Haas thinks the tree looks “very majestic.”

A white picket fence with signs from People’s United Bank encloses the tree. Last year, due to economic trials, the tree was going to be cut from the city’s budget. Mike Casparino, market president of Northern Connecticut for People’s United Bank, said that the bank decided to step in. “We want to make sure that the tradition stays alive because the people of New Haven are important to us,” he said. “All we want to do is give back to the community that has supported us so well.”

People’s United Bank has donated $20,000 for the event both years.

Members of Occupy New Haven interviewed on Wednesday night seemed to have little interest in the tree or the events surrounding it. One dismissed the tree as “more money wasted. An excessive sign of consumerism.” Another was excited by the prospect of more light for their campsite.

David McCarthy, a member of Occupy New Haven who was handing out flyers during the tree-lighting celebration, said that he didn’t have a problem with the event as long as it was about peace and happiness.

If the feedback that People’s United Bank received after its donation last year is any indication, the tree and the events surrounding it really do bring happiness to the community.

“The tree symbolizes holidays and families. People said that [in making the tree-lighting ceremony possible] we saved the holidays, we saved the holiday season,” Casparino said. He hopes to continue the tradition of the bank’s contribution to the Tree Lighting Celebration in years to come.

The donation not only sponsors contracted workers to help the Parks Department transport and decorate the tree, but also provides for the carnival of surrounding events. At the Celebration, nostalgic music twinkled from the carousel as its spinning lights shone on the face of a real live camel. Rudolph, Ronald McDonald and a life-sized mouse danced through the crowd, doling out high-fives and the occasional thumbs-up as Mom made a digital memory. Even the buffalo from Buffalo Wild Wings was there for the photo op.

A group of four Yale sophomores admired what Katherine Paulsen ’14 considered “the best thing ever.” They were watching the “Alpine Safari Animals.” The girls had attended the event last year and said that [the Alpine Safari] was the “one thing we hoped was still there.” They are life-sized mechanical animals with well-loved fur that attendees can ride: a tiger, a polar bear, Rudolph and Rudolph’s obese cousin (with antlers decorated just like a Christmas tree). Most of those waiting in line to ride the animals around the flagpole were small children, but one of the wranglers said each animal can handle up to two adults.

The event also featured storytelling, horse-drawn carriage rides, a Santa Claus and performances by school chorus groups, all for free.

The sophomores in attendance mentioned that they enjoyed the sense of community created by the event. “The people here are not just the people you see walking on the streets (of campus) every day. There are families and children. Not just people in the same four-year age bracket,” noted Chandler Rosenthal ’14.

“It was a nice experience because I was on my way to this new market through the Green,” Encinias said, “and it reminded me that we don’t live in a terrible place after all.”

Finally, at exactly 6 p.m., just in time for the news, the whirling generators shut off. Sounds of screaming babies, kettle-corn chomping and Santa’s ho-ho-hos deflated as the countdown began. All attention turned towards the tree.

The sentiment that Eliezer Santiago, a University of Southern Connecticut student, expressed the previous night rang true in this moment. “That thing is nice,” he observed. “It is a nice change of pace, especially for the holiday season. It creates a nice sense of unity. We can all share the same emotion towards the tree.”

As the anticipation built near countdown, Marina Addams ’14 echoed Santiago’s words from the night before. “Everyone looks like they are having such a good time. It is nice to share such a happy moment with the community.”

The crowd screamed, “Three, two, one.” The New Haven Green was illuminated.

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