The smell of hot chocolate, laughter from kids in Santa hats, the familiar sound of carols and bells — Christmas cheer was in the air Thursday night as the annual tree-lighting ceremony on the New Haven Green kicked off the holiday season.

The event, which started at 4 p.m., was hosted by the New Haven Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism and New Haven Parks, Recreation and Trees. It was broadcast live by NBC Connecticut, the sole media sponsor of the ceremony.

Although the official tree lighting was not until 7 p.m., many families, students and New Haven residents arrived early to enjoy the festivities, which included food trucks, a petting zoo, various arts and crafts, free food, live entertainment and many fully lighted amusement rides. Small children lined up to meet Santa Claus and attendees enjoyed free hot chocolate to warm them in the cold.

“It’s a wonderful community event because it brings together a broad spectrum of New Haven residents,” said Breda Kestenbaum, NBC Connecticut community and special events producer. “It’s our version of the Rockefeller Center tree.”

Kestenbaum told the News that the tree lighting is an annual event that is always conducted the Thursday after Thanksgiving.

One student, Karen Jiang ’21, said the event was “really festive and reminiscent of home,” while Neehaar Gandhi ’21 said it was “wholesome.”

But controversy swirled in the winter breeze as a small group of organizers from New Haven Stands with Standing Rock dressed in elf hats sang carols in protest of the city’s investment in Wells Fargo. The bank sponsored the ceremony and purchased the 65-foot-tall Norway spruce tree that will be on display in New Haven for the next month.

In a press release, the organization alleged that Wells Fargo has harmed indigenous people by providing $467 million to the Dakota Access Pipeline and other similar projects. The group is calling on New Haven to move city funds from the bank and relocate them to a local bank that does not support the pipeline.

Last year, AnnMarie McDonald, a communications official at Wells Fargo, responded to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests last year, saying that as “a company committed to environmental sustainability and human rights,” Wells Fargo respects differing opinions. She also expressed hope that the dispute would reach a peaceful resolution.

Mayor Toni Harp announced in August that the city would stop employing Wells Fargo to manage the city’s financial needs, but the city has yet to completely divest from the bank.

“Tonight is really a continuation of advocacy to get the city to make a firm commitment with a timeline on when they will have moved all the operating accounts that are currently controlled by Wells Fargo,” Elias Estabrook ’16, one of the group’s organizers, said.

City Hall could not be reached on Thursday for comment.

At the festival, group members sang new lyrics to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and other holiday songs.  “Wells Fargo has our money, and it’s plain for all to see that what it’s really funding is more than just a Christmas tree,” protesters sang.

Estabrook said that this effort has been the group’s primary focus. Tuhus said the organization had protested in front of several banks before learning last year that New Haven keeps its operating funds in Wells Fargo. The organization first called on the mayor to move the city’s operating funds from Wells Fargo in August, Estabrook said. In October, he said, the group asked the mayor to make a public commitment. Throughout the fall, he said, the organization has been collecting signatures of support from New Haven residents.

Tuhus said the group did not want to be a disturbance at the festival but rather sought to raise awareness about the issue and the work New Haven Stands with Standing Rock is involved in.

“We hope to make more people aware of the campaign,” Tuhus said. “We hope to do it in a way that is entertaining.”

New Haven Stands with Standing Rock was first established in September 2015.

Ashna Gupta |

Isabel Bysiewicz |