(This appears in my essay collection “Lake Forest Moments,” It is about Lake Forest, but I think it evokes many of the holiday tree-lightings that I have attended over the years.)
Lake Forest has many special annual traditions to commemorate holidays, but the tree lighting ceremony that takes place in Market Square the day after Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite traditions. The tree lighting and the Lake Forest Day parade in August, draw the biggest crowds of residents. You see people you haven’t seen in a long while – old neighbors, a woman you used to be a Girl Scout leader with eight years ago, the butcher who retired from Don’s. In fact, it seems like you could know everyone there; it has that feel to it that you only get from true hometown events.
The weather for the tree lighting can range anywhere from the sunny mid-sixties to a foot-numbing wind-chill of forty below. The best weather condition to my mind, though, is thirty degrees and lightly snowing. The Thanksgiving leftovers are waiting for you at home, the firewood is stacked by the back door, and you’ve just started to get in the Christmas spirit. Thick, wet snowflakes dancing through the late November air, still slightly warmed by the lake, make everything seem new and clean and hopeful.
The program for the tree lighting has been basically the same every year I’ve been there. The organizers set up tables strategically placed along Western Avenue in front of Market Square with free hot cider and baked goods to munch on. Students from the Lake Forest High School chorus gather on a bandstand next to the train station and lead the crowd in singing Christmas carols. Sheet music is distributed to you when you get your cider and goodies, so you can follow along with the singers.
The mayor is the Master of Ceremonies, and he encourages a build-up of excitement as the moment approaches for the lighting. The winner and runners-up of the holiday button contest are announced – local students who have designed art work that will be put on buttons to be handed out by Market Square merchants during the holidays (another great tradition).
Just at that moment, the sun lowers behind Marshall Field’s, its last rays glinting off the copper weather vanes on the north and south sides of the Square, and the breath of babies in strollers coming out in little puffs like moist baby clouds, and the rosy cheeks of middle-age children poking one another and laughing at private jokes, and lovers drawing close, and fathers with toddlers bouncing on their broad shoulders, and the snow now coming down harder, and the voices singing Silent Night.
At that moment the mayor starts the countdown to the lights coming on, and the crowd joins in ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, all looking at each other and smiling as though they are the luckiest people on the face of the earth.
And then the lights themselves, put up during the weeks before by the city maintenance workers. Thousands upon thousands of tiny bright, white lights, impossibly woven through the trees of downtown, sparkling like hope in the snow and the graying sky.
There is a hush then, a shared silence, as we all look at the lights, thinking our own private thoughts for a moment. And then the sky darkens, and the people are shapes moving in the dark toward their cars and homes, and it is over until next year.