Santa Rosa merchants keep tree lighting ceremony burning bright

  • 11/27/2009:B3: Lights will fill Santa Rosa's downtown tonight during a tree-lighting ceremony at Old Courthouse Square to kick off the holiday season.

    11/24/2007:B3: Lights filled Santa Rosa's downtown Friday during a ceremony to kick off the holiday season.

    PC: 1 of 1--The tree in Old Courthouse Square is lit with a ceremony November 23, 2007. Press Democrat / Jeff Kan Lee

For more than three decades, hundreds of people have congregated in Old Courthouse Square on the Friday after Thanksgiving to light a candle in honor of friends and family who have died.

Sutter Care at Home worked with local merchants to organize the festivities, which included live music, children's crafts, a visit by Santa Claus and the lighting of three large redwood trees standing near the Empire Building.

For many, it became a family tradition.

"This is the first year I'll take the grandkids," said DiAnn O'Hara, who coordinates volunteers for Sutter. She took her own children to the ceremony when they were younger.

But this year, Lucy Barnett, the event's longtime organizer, retired and Sutter didn't directly replace her position. Sutter started looking for other groups to continue the festivities and in September asked downtown merchants if they'd want to take the reins. The merchants not only said yes — they committed to giving the ceremony a makeover with a new tree and expanded activities.

"We wanted the tree lighting to continue, but we also wanted to create something to build on that could get bigger year after year," said Debra Anderson, who owns the hair salon Debra's Corner and has been involved with the ceremony for about eight years.

Nino Rabbaa of SoCo Hospitality Group, which runs numerous local restaurants including Rendez Vous Bistro, said he'd dreamed of organizing a big "holiday village" with entertainment and local vendors for years, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.

His company pitched in $5,000 to buy LED Christmas lights, which will be strung on a new tree at the northwest corner of Third Street and Mendocino Avenue.

The cluster of old redwoods by the Empire Building were decorated more than a decade ago, and over time, they outgrew the lighting, which now looks misplaced, said Julie Kawahara of Kindred Fair Trade Handcrafts. The merchants discovered that it would cost around $10,000 to rearrange the lights on the towering trees, so they decided to instead decorate another tree.

The smaller tree on the corner will stand out and be easily seen by passing traffic, Kawahara said.

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