Thursday night, only a few people — instead of a crowd of several thousand — trudged through the snow to the New Haven Green. Thursday’s snowstorm forced the postponement of the annual tree-lighting ceremony, which now will be held Dec. 12 at 5 p.m. on the lower Green.

Students, New Haven residents and visitors scattered around the 75-foot tree with 20,000 colored light bulbs that shimmered through the silent falling snow.

“We didn’t want to totally disappoint them, so one of the other guys in the park department — threw the switch for them,” said Don Russell, acting urban forester for the New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees.

Presented by the city of New Haven, the tree-lighting ceremony is a local tradition. Mayor John DeStefano Jr. was planning to attend and other planned festivities included guest appearances by the cast of the New Haven Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” Santa Claus, and entertainment by four singing groups.

The ceremony usually happens the day after Thanksgiving, but Barbara Lamb of the Office of Cultural Affairs, which leads the organizing effort, said the city purposely planned it for a later date this year.

“[We] wanted to call attention to late-night shopping on Thursdays,” Lamb said, in reference to the extended retail hours on Thursdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The tree-lighting ceremony changes from year to year, but the same Santa Claus is always there to pull the light switch. One man has played St. Nick for more than 50 years.

“Thank God I’ve never missed one,” he said. “I hope I can do it for the next 15 years. Because I am going to retire at age 100.”

Santa, a longtime New Haven resident, was reluctant to give his real name. He said he tries to keep his name out of the paper for the children who visit him with their Christmas wishes after the show.

Every year, the New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees undertakes the formidable task of finding a huge tree, cutting it down and setting it up on the Green.

Russell said this year’s tree came from Branford. Anne Belmonte owned the tree, and her daughter, Barbara Carroll, notified Russell’s department. The Norway spruce weighs 8,600 pounds and park employees spent nearly a month stringing it with lights.

Russell said he always keeps his eye out for a good tree.

“If I see a nice tree, I’ll go knock on [someone’s] door,” he said.

If he is lucky, the property owner wants to cut it down anyway. That is how, on Wednesday, he found the candidate for next year’s Christmas tree in East Haven.

The Green’s tree-lighting ceremony may have been postponed, but the snow did not stop another one in the park across from Hillhouse High School. Multiple lighting ceremonies take place across New Haven each year.

Christy Hass, deputy director of parks and squares, said the Green’s ceremony was cancelled due to the size of the event and the parking ban for snow removal. There is a towing schedule for on-site parking, which would have made it difficult for the several thousand expected attendees.

Russell only remembers one year in the mid-1990s when there was no tree lighting on the Green.

“We had — almost a hurricane force wind and the tree actually blew over,” he said. “If you want to ask for nightmares, I mean, that’s it.”

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”19587″ ]