Chapel Hill kicks off holiday season with annual tree lighting


The annual Community Tree Lighting Ceremony was held in the Memorial Garden of University Baptist Church. Andrew Pester played Christmas music during the ceremony. He is the organist for the church. This is his third year performing.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt’s first memories of the holiday season are anything but typical.

Rather than throwing snowballs or warming up by the fire, he and his family spent his first few Christmases in swimsuits on the beaches of Hawaii because of his father’s military career.

Now that he calls Orange County home, Kleinschmidt said there’s no comparison to a Chapel Hill Christmas.

“There’s something special about Franklin Street around the holidays,” he said. “Families are out on the street; the shopping is great; the food is great. While my Christmases really varied throughout my childhood, there was always that constancy of family and that’s really prominent here.”

To kick off the season, Kleinschmidt and more than 60 townspeople circled around the Memorial Garden of University Baptist Church on Sunday night for the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership’s sixth annual community tree lighting ceremony.

After the University Baptist Choir opened the ceremony with the accompaniment of Duke music student Andrew Pester on keyboard, the crowd read from lyric sheets and joined in for a group rendition of “Deck the Halls,” Kleinschmidt’s favorite Christmas carol.

Then with the flip of a switch, Kleinschmidt performed his guest tree lighter duty and decked the crowd in a glow of blue as the massive tree lit up the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets.

Gillian Hadden, who has attended the lighting ceremony for three consecutive years, said she enjoys the variety of holiday activities in the area.

In addition to making a gingerbread house with her 3-year-old daughter Lila, Hadden said her family will see Carolina Performing Arts’ production of the Nutcracker, attend the Carolina Inn’s 12 Days of Christmas and partake in the Preservation Society’s 2011 Holiday House Tour.

“The lighting ceremony is a nice way to kick off the season after Thanksgiving,” said Hadden, who is also looking forward to wrapping presents while watching Christmas classics like “Frosty the Snowman.”

While children ran around the garden to retrieve candy canes from a couple dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, Allison James and a few of the children from her Sunday school classes sold baked goods and cocoa to raise money for International Justice Mission, an organization that works to help reduce human trafficking.

“We’re teaching our children that God loves justice and this is one thing we can do to help people be free,” she said.

Although the final tally of money raised at the ceremony isn’t complete, James said the church has raised more than $21,000 for International Justice in the past five years.

For James, the lighting ceremony holds a special place in her heart because decorating her family’s Christmas tree has always been her favorite holiday activity.

“All our ornaments on our tree have some kind of meaning and story about our family, whether it’s a trip we took or a school play my children were in,” she said. “The whole tree is like a story of our family’s life together.”

Senior Pastor Mitchell Simpson echoed James’ seasonal sentiment of family tradition.

“If I’m asking for anything this Christmas, it’s that I get to be with my children and that they be safe,” he said. “That’s all I could ask for and more.”

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