Tree lighting gets revelers in the holiday spirit

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

Published:

Updated: November 25, 2011, 10:38 PM

 
photoLaura Hoekstra, center, sings carols with the Vancouver Schools Choir prior to the Christmas tree lighting Friday evening.

()

“You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” growled loudly across Propstra Square as a few early merrymakers wandered in for the tree lighting ceremony at Esther Short Park late Friday afternoon.

Mingled with other holiday tunes, lines like “You’re as cuddly as a cactus, You’re as charming as an eel,” seemed a bit odd as the small but festive group of revelers began to gather.

As soon as the sun went down, though, much like the Grinch’s heart in the Dr. Seuss classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the spirit of community and The Holidays took over — and the crowd grew, by much more than just three sizes.

It grew to about 2,000 people or more, according to unofficial estimates by members of Vancouver Rotary.

“Each year, this has grown more and more,” said Anne McEnerny-Ogle, a Rotary member. “We keep our fingers crossed every time for good weather, and it might be a little cold, but with 1,800 to 2,000 people, we’re cozy.”

McEnerny-Ogle has been dressing as an elf and handing out candy canes at the event for several years. The tree lightning ceremony is part of Vancouver Rotary’s Festival of Trees, which continues over the next week.

As she was talking, a group of four children walked up to McEnerny-Ogle eagerly, asking her for candy canes. She smiled and leaned over to place one in each small anxious hand.

“What other tight community event do we have like this? It’s free,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “And look at all the happy children.”

Throughout the crowd, parents and their kids joined the Vancouver Public Schools Combined High School Choirs in singing “Jingle Bells” and other holiday favorites.

Sharon and Bob Grammar, who’ve come to every tree lighting ceremony since the Festival of Trees began 16 years ago, arrived early with three of their 19 grandchildren to find a choice spot. The bench they found was right in front of the big tree.

“I like the gathering of everyone in the community, the lights, the atmosphere and listening to the school choir,” Sharon Grammar said. “It brings a lot of enjoyment.”

“Now all we need is snow,” Bob Grammar added.

The couple, who were born and raised in Vancouver, said they’ve seen the event grow dramatically over the years.

“I’m glad they do this every year,” Sharon Grammar said. “It’s wonderful. It brings families together. It brings people together. Everyone’s so peaceful and polite.”

Throughout the crowd, children played or sat on their fathers’ shoulders to get a better look at the stage.

Mandy and Neil Viertel brought their three sons, Aidan, 3, Jackson, 6, and Matthew, 9, to enjoy the event.

“They love to see Santa,” Mandy Viertel said. “And I just love seeing all these different families here.”

It was only the second time the family has come to the festivities, but the Viertels said they had a great time.

“It’s a good community event,” said Neil Viertel. “The kids get all excited about seeing the tree lit up and about seeing Santa.”

Asked what the kids were excited about, Jackson and Matthew both chimed in: “All of it,” they said.

Neil Viertel, who served in the Navy from 1997 to 2008, also got a thank you, along with his fellow service men and women in the crowd, from Mayor Tim Leavitt when the mayor took the stage.

Leavitt had the crowd shout with him: “We are Vancouver and we salute you. We salute you,” to the city’s military members.

The mayor’s speech was upstaged, however, by the arrival of Santa Claus on a decorated train.

The visit caused most of the crowd’s younger members to rush toward Columbia Street to wave at Santa as he made his way through the park to the stage.

“Merry Christmas, Happy Thanksgiving, Vancouver,” Santa told the crowd in a brief speech.

Then, to the crowd’s joy, the tree lights were flipped on to a chorus of “Oh Christmas Tree.”

After the ceremony finished, Angie Hansen, a Vancouver Juvenile Court mentor, stayed with two girls to help clean up litter.

“We’re trying to mingle these juveniles back into the community and show that they can do good things,” Hansen said. “These kids are learning, and now they’re learning to give back. It’s a great experience for them.”

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; http://twitter.com/col_suevo; sue.vorenberg@columbian.com.