Down East 2013 ©
Last November, as I sat calmly eating soup on the second floor of Portland’s Public Market House in Monument Square, a fifty-foot blue spruce levitated slowly across my window. Initial confusion (and slight panic) gave way to unadulterated excitement. Christmas, I suddenly realized, was just a month away. The market buzzed with anticipation as a group of professionals gathered to watch fearless construction workers hoist the tree to a standing position. With the evergreen firmly set in the center of the square, it became official: It was time to get ready for the holidays.
The raising and eventual lighting of the tree represents the start to the holidays, and serves as Portland’s municipal effort to capture the true meaning of the season. Each year, a child from the Make-A-Wish Foundation counts down to zero and presses an over-sized button to illuminate the square with 1,500 multicolored LED lights. A crowd of more than ten thousand people burst with joy and applause. It’s a moment to acknowledge that even as the days grow colder, the Portland spirit flourishes.
The festival, overseen by Jan Beitzer, executive director of the nonprofit Portland’s Downtown District, has become a consistently thrilling, moving, and joyful ritual in the city’s life. “It creates a great sense of community when you’re kicking off the holiday season together,” says Beitzer. “Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, or anything, it’s a time of family and friendship.”
Festivities begin with the Maine State Ballet performing a dance from the “Nutcracker Suite.” Then crowd favorite Rick Charette and his Bubblegum Band play a mix of classic carols and original hits. The singer announces to the crowd, “We may have a special visitor stopping by,” with a wink and a smile to the parents before launching into “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Santa arrives on the back of a fire truck. Following the rock star-like ovation from thousands of screaming children, he jumps onstage and joins Charette to sing “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Jingle Bells.”
“When I started doing this seven years ago my objective and goal was to create memories for people, and sing songs that people could engage in. It’s become one of my favorite events,” Charette says.
It’s safe to say he’s not alone in feeling this way.