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.

At 5 p.m. Friday, Old Courthouse Square will be divided into a children's village, Santa's village and a local business and community section. These areas will be partitioned by Christmas trees on loan from a local tree lot.

Children will be able to fashion Native American crafts, decorate ornaments, make holiday cards, play in a bounce house, build Legos and more. Local businesses will offer free hot cider, cupcakes, kettle corn and hot chocolate. Santa Claus will arrive by fire truck at 5:45 p.m. and be available for free photos.

"The whole idea was to create a place where kids could feel it was really Christmas," Rabbaa said.

Adults, meanwhile, will be able to browse gifts made by local artists; sample beer, wine and egg nog; and have a free taste of food from nearby restaurants.

KZST radio host Brent Farris will emcee the festivities, which include Santa's arrival, children's caroling, and a holiday music program. As the music begins at 6 p.m., people will pass around candles.

At 6:55 p.m., those candles will be lit and five minutes later blown out at the same moment the tree is illuminated.

The merchants hope the event will be as big or bigger than it has been in recent years, when more than 1,000 people showed up. They want to use any donations gathered to plan a larger celebration next year.

The event came together with donations from numerous businesses, including $5,000 from Sutter, Rabbaa said.

Stanroy Music Center will donate all the sound equipment.

For now, Rabbaa is keeping the monetary donations in an account he created for his restaurant's charitable efforts. The merchants plan to create a nonprofit next year to keep the event going.

"We'd really like this to become a symbol of our community," Kawahara said.

The celebration will begin at 5 p.m. in Old Courthouse Square.