Christmas tree lights up Carolina blue
The lighting of the Christmas tree in downtown Chapel Hill didn’t mark the beginning of the holiday season this year but it still brought out the young and young at heart.
University Baptist Church and Downtown Chapel Hill Partnership teamed up for the seventh year to continue what some are calling the town’s tree-dition.
“Every year we see more and more people,” said Meg McGurk, Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership’s executive director. “It is becoming the symbol and the event to kick off the holiday season for the community.”
With the rarity of Hanukkah’s early arrival, this year the lighting of the tree fell in the middle of the Festival of Lights and the first day of Advent.
Standing approximately 25 feet tall, the tree uses energy efficient LED lights, giving the tree a Carolina blue glow, McGurk said. The town’s LED snowflakes went up last week thanks to the Chapel Hill and Carrboro public works departments.
As the crowd gathered, children played with each other as they ran around the tree and sipped hot chocolate. Hats with ear flaps and decorative scarves kept people warm while the carolers took their place across from the tree.
With Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt unable to make it back to town in time for the lighting, Chapel Hill Town Councilman Ed Harrison flipped the switch and was met with applause and cheers.
Chapel Hill Police Capt. Jeff Clark has been Santa for the tree lighting since its inception seven years ago. When asked why he does it, he replied, “why not?”
“The best part is the interaction with the kids and that it’s a focal point of our community,” Clark said. “It brings everyone together.”
Clark was accompanied by Chapel Hill resident Anna Tomkins as Mrs. Claus as they gave out candy canes and greetings.
As soloist Franklin Kennedy led the group in “Oh Christmas Tree” it was hard to tell that it was his first tree lighting.
“I’m sung many solos here (University Baptist Church),” he said. “I’ve probably sung at least 10 solos in my life so I’m used to it. Before each time I still get a little nervous.”
His favorite part of the Christmas season, he said, is, “the joy of everyone being able to gather together and celebrate the birth of Jesus.”
The celebration of life that Kennedy talked about was present at Sunday’s ceremony in another way.
The hot chocolate and homemade cookies for sale at the ceremony were part of a fund-raiser for International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that works to free modern day slaves and end human trafficking.
Allison James is the director of the children’s ministry at University Baptist and one of the organizers of the sale. With more than $200 raised during last year’s ceremony, James was hopeful for similar success this year.
“It’s part of educating people on the IJM and the work that they do and this is a great opportunity to get the word out,” she said.
With each cup of cocoa and cookie sold, an IJM card thanked patrons for their support.
Betsay Watson was at the tree lighting with her two children, bundled up in fuzzy hats and mittens, Watson said she and her family “just love it” and couldn’t stay at home.
Craig McCoy, University Baptist minister of music, has been with the church just three years and always enjoys the tree lighting.
“It’s an opportunity as a choir to be heard by other people and to be a part of the community,” he said. “We just love it. Right here in the heart of downtown, to be a part of the community and what’s going on, it’s great.”