Happy Holidays: Grand Rapids lights Christmas tree

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Rosa Parks Circle remains closed for construction, but that won’t stop Grand Rapids from carrying out a city tradition spanning more than a century.

The city will light its 42-foot Christmas tree Friday in a ceremony emceed by WOOD TV8’s Maranda. Event sponsors Charlie Secchia and John Inhulsen will flip the switch, along with City Manager Mark Washington. WOOD TV8’s Community Affairs Director Casey Jones will lead the countdown.

“We’re innovative and we are resilient. And this event is another example of our resiliency and our innovativeness,” said Evette Pittman, special events manager for the city of Grand Rapids.

KEEPING A GRAND RAPIDS TRADITION ALIVE

(In this photo from the Grand Rapids Public Library archives, women decorate a Christmas tree inside the Grand Rapids City Hall.)

While Christmas trees have been part of our culture for centuries, a public Christmas tree didn’t make it into Grand Rapids’ historic records until 1904.

New York City kickstarted modern Christmas tree lighting ceremonies in 1912 when it installed a public Christmas tree. A year later on Christmas Eve, Grand Rapids held its first official Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Fulton Street Park, now known as Veterans Memorial Park, according to historian Tim Gloege with the Grand Rapids Public Library.

While Grand Rapids adopted the tradition early, the city dropped its tree lighting ceremony after a year or two because of lack of interest, according to Gloege. The event was off and on for decades, restarting during World War I at the urging of the Grand Rapids War Commission, stopping during the Great Depression, then restarting in 1935 at Campau Square as part of celebration for the renovated Monroe Avenue shopping district. The tree lighting earned less media coverage after 1938, eclipsed by the now-defunct Wurzburg’s Christmas Parade, according to Gloege.

(A news clipping from the Grand Rapids Public Library archives details Grand Rapids’ first official public tree lighting on Christmas Eve, 1913.)

In the mid-1960s, organizations like the Lions Club and Salvation Army started sponsoring the event at Campau Square. The Grand Rapids Art Museum eventually adopted Grand Rapids’ Christmas tree lighting ceremony until about six years ago, when the organization determined the logistical demands were too much, according to Pittman. That’s when sponsors Charlie and Elizabeth Secchia and John and Monica Inhulsen came in.

“(They) stepped forward and said, ‘This is a tradition for our community and the city, and we don’t want to see it go away.’ So they have continued to sponsor the tree lighting event,” Pittman said.

(Photos from the Grand Rapids Public Library archive show the 1929 Christmas tree for Grand Rapids at Fulton Street Park, now known as Veterans Memorial Park.)

WHAT’S NEW THIS YEAR

The Christmas tree will glow differently this year with the help 40,000 to 50,000 new LEDs. Topping the concolor fir is a “starburst of color,” according to Pittman.

This is the sixth year the city and Rockford Construction have tapped Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton for Grand Rapids’ Christmas Tree. Rockford Construction, Gelock Heavy Movers and Buist Electric installed the 4,000-pound the tree in its usual spot just outside the GRAM on Nov. 23.

(The Christmas tree arriving in Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021.)

But because Rosa Parks Circle is closed, all the festivities that traditionally come with the tree lighting will shift to nearby Monroe Center and the extended sidewalk adjacent to the GRAM. Monroe Center from Pearl Street to Ottawa Avenue will remain closed to traffic during the event. Pittman says the fire engine, police cruisers, water truck and DPW plow blocking each end of the street will be open to children.

“Kids will be able to climb into these vehicles and check them out, but they’re also for public safety,” she said.

Many of the typical event partners are returning this year. The Gerald R. Ford International Airport and Grand Rapids Children’s Museum will be distributing winter play packs for kids, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks will provide s’mores and hot chocolate free to everyone, Home Depot will hand out craft kits for kids and the Grand Rapids Public Library will bring in it newest mobile vehicle filled with activities, games and crafts for kids.

Music will also fill the air, with performances by Opera Grand Rapids and the Salvation Army brass band. New City Kids will also provide entertainment and characters from the Nutcracker will mingle with visitors.

Downtown Grand Rapids tree lighting on Dec. 4, 2020. (WOOD TV8/ Michael Buck)

“One thing we learned throughout COVID is collaboration. Innovation and collaboration. And it’s so important that we continue to collaborate with our partners and to make sure that the community knows that we’re here, these activities are happening and we’re doing them in a safe and responsible way,” said Pittman.

(A photo taken by Ray Nard Imagemaker and provided by Grand Rapids Ballet shows dancers performing “The Nutcracker.”)

PANDEMIC PRECAUTIONS

In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, visitors are encouraged to practice social distancing as best they can and wear face masks. The city plans to provide free hand sanitizer and masks on site.

The event comes at a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations and positivity rates are spiking. Pittman said any changes in light of the pandemic will be based on state, county and federal guidelines and restrictions.

“The community should feel confident that the city is putting on a responsible and safe event. We encourage everyone to come down at their own comfort level,” Pittman said. “If you feel like there’s too many people in one area, the entire downtown is going to be lit with holiday lights as well. So we invite folks to take a stroll throughout downtown, see the beautiful lights and then come back and take a look at the tree.”

People can also watch the tree lighting ceremony from the comfort of their home. The 5 p.m. event will be carried live on WOOD TV8 and streamed live on woodtv.com. The festivities will run until 7 p.m.

AFTER THE CEREMONY

The holiday music will linger and the tree will remain outside the Grand Rapids Art Museum through the first week of January. Rockford Construction will then remove the tree for recycling.

(A Dec. 1, 2021 photo shows the Grand Rapids city Christmas tree outside the Grand Rapids Art Museum downtown.)

Pittman said the city is hopeful the granite it needs for seating at Rosa Parks Circle will come in soon, allowing workers to reopen the rink for ice skating in February. In the meantime, Pittman recommended visiting the city’s other parks for winter activities.

“One thing we found throughout 2020 was… how important that (social connection) was. It really played a part in our emotional infrastructure. So we know as a city that it’s important that we have events such as these and that the community comes out and that they socialize together to build the unity and to just make us a vibrant place to be,” she said.

(In this Nov. 15, 2021 photo, a chain-link fence surrounds Ecliptic at Rosa Parks Circle in downtown Grand Rapids while construction continues.)

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