COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — The holiday season is officially underway. To get the season off to a great start, ilani hosted its annual tree-lighting celebration Wednesday night.
At the center of the festivities was the 54-foot-tall Christmas tree. The tree has more than 3,000 lights and takes nearly a month to build and decorate. Tom Teesdale, vice president of marketing for the casino, said the goal is to add another 4 feet to the tree each year until it reaches its maximum height of 100 feet. With cargo shipments delayed or stalled completely, Teesdale said the casino was unable to add to the tree’s height this year but did add a new bow.
Vancouver resident Christine Swift and her daughter, Korina, were among the dozens of people gathered under the large, see-through plastic tent to watch the tree lighting. The pair said while they have previously been to the casino, this was their first year at the holiday celebration.
“We’ve never been to the tree lighting before so we thought it would be a great way to start the holiday season,” Christine Swift said.
The tree lighting wasn’t the only attraction of the evening. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe Drum Group began the evening’s musical performances with two traditional songs. They were followed by the Ridgefield High School Choir’s performance of contemporary favorites like “Santa Baby” and “All I Want for Christmas is You.” The last live music performance came from The Dickens Carolers’ Belles and Beaus quartet. Dressed in Victorian-era costumes, the acapella group sang Christmas classics such as “Jingle Bells” and “The Little Drummer Boy.”
“We’ve been coming out for the last three years and we’ve kind of made it a tradition,” said Jason Hattrick.
Hattrick, of Vancouver, and his son Parker didn’t come just for the tree lighting, though. Along with the hot chocolate on tap, there were homemade sugar cookies — Parker’s favorite — candy canes and hot coffee for revelers to enjoy.
Hattrick runs Kindness 911, a nonprofit support organization that connects law enforcement with the communities they serve.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Cowlitz Tribal Police Department and any time they do these events we come out here,” Hattrick said. “It’s a good time for father and son to come out, grab a cookie and some hot cocoa and kick off the holidays.”
Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus were also on hand to sit for photos with kids (and some adults), listen to Christmas wishes and check off naughty-or-nice lists.
The evening’s festivities were capped by the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, represented by members Patty Kinswa-Gaiser, Whitney Mosback, Suzanne Donaldson and Luke Bridges and vice chair Patty Kniswa-Gaiser, awarding nearly $200,000 to several nonprofit groups and organizations.
The Ridgefield Lions received $10,000.
“One of the mottos of the Lions is, ‘Where there’s a need, there’s a Lion.’ This will help us tremendously with our work in the community,” said Lions’ leader Dean Stenehjem.
Another group receiving funds was Santa’s Posse, which received $30,000. Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins said the additional money is especially welcome this year as costs for toys and food have gone up by around 25 percent.
Share Vancouver received $50,000.
“We are absolutely overwhelmed with gratitude to the Cowlitz Tribe and ilani for this incredible support,” Share Executive Director Diane McWithey said.
McWithey said the funds will help pay for the free meals the organization provides.
Two scholarships were also awarded. Lower Columbia College received a $50,000 scholarship and Lackamas Elementary School in Yelm received a scholarship for $57,365.41.