Illuminating the lives of islanders for 30 years
Islander Chris Powell started the tree-lighting tradition back in 1980. Powell and his wife had moved to Jamestown from Virginia. There was no town Christmas tree ceremony here and Powell wanted to fill the void.
Together with island resident Linda Broden, Powell and Broden put together the first tree lighting celebration. The tree lighting quickly became a holiday island tradition.
“We didn’t have any lights on the first tree because we didn’t have enough money,” Powell said. “We got most of our donations from the local businesses. It was a hodgepodge of contributions.”
Powell made the first Christmas tree-topper a four-pointed star made from aluminum flashing. He mounted it with lights and had a crane hoist him to the top of the tree to place it. Today, the Jamestown Christmas tree has a more professional, commercially made tree topper, but the original one is still in use for the Christmas Pageant held on Christmas Eve on the Shoreby Hill green.
“We only use trees from Jamestown,” Powell said. “Over the 30 years, as the trees grew, so did the size of our Christmas tree”.
Last year, Jamestown had the tallest Christmas tree in Rhode Island and this year it looks like the record will be beaten.
The Village Christmas Tree Lighting is only possible thanks to the generous support from the local businesses and the many volunteers who donate their time, energy and expertise. Bill Munger provides six or seven of his Conanicut Marina employees and coordinates the placement of the tree through the use of his marine crane. Doug Chapman drives the crane and Pete Largess helps cut the tree down.
The actual tree lighting has become quite the production. Jim Archibald helps coordinate the entire event. Scout Troup 1 builds the bonfire, B.J. Whitehouse leads the community cho- rus and Leland Brown directs the band members from the Lawn Avenue School.
Over the years there has even been baked delights such as chocolate chip cookies, oatmeal cookies, raspberry tarts and sugarcoated bagels. Andrea Colognese and Doriana Carella of the Village Hearth and Steve and Maria Liebhouser of Slice of Heaven provide the free cookies for the children. Hot chocolate is also on hand to warm up the crowd.
“We always pray for snow,” Powell said. “One year, however, back in 2003, the snow was so bad we had to postpone the tree lighting ceremony.”
After 22 years, Chris Powell handed over the tree branches and the leadership to Mark Baker in 2003. One of the first jobs Baker had to learn was securing the right tree. The tree has always been donated by an island family.
“We start in late August, early September,” Baker said. “We look at lots of trees. I take my daughter Colette with me.”
Once a tree is selected, Munger and his crew coordinate the cutting, placement and decorating of the village Christmas tree. After that is complete a stage has to be set up, lights have to be placed and loud speakers have to be mounted. “It takes several hours to get everything accomplished,” Baker said. “Once everything is done, we then hope and pray everything works.”
One year the stage collapsed. Another year the lights didn’t work. On several occasions, the tree fell. “Not anymore. We’ve gotten all those things figured out and corrected,” boasted Baker.
The tree lighting event is always held on the first Saturday in December. The celebration lasts for about an hour and starts around 5:30 p.m. The Jamestown police are on hand to direct traffi c. Once the band sings “O Tannenbaum!” – better known as “Oh, Christmas Tree!” – the tree lights are turned on, the kids cheer and the Christmas season in Jamestown officially begins. “If the weather is good, over 500 people attend,” Baker said.
“It did what I wanted it to do,” Powell said, originator of the tradition. “Keep it simple. Keep it fun. Get as many people to join in and then have them enjoy themselves.”
The tree lighting is a fantastic way to start off the holiday season of sharing, gift giving and joy.