More than 2,000 people turned out on a mild Friday night for Winter Lights, downtown Santa Rosa’s annual tree lighting event, which was held for the first time at the reunified Old Courthouse Square.
The event, sponsored by the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce, kicks off the local holiday season festivities, followed by events in Petaluma and Geyserville tonight.
Downtown merchants were eager to have the event at the square — which reopened in April — after construction delays forced it to be held last year in front of the main entrance of the nearby Santa Rosa Plaza. And they said they were pleased by the crowds that brought foot traffic to their stores, rather than solely to the major shopping mall just to the west.
“I have been pleasantly surprised,” said Mark Auerbach, owner of Mark Allen Jewelers on Fourth Street. He noted that a Halloween event at the square this year brought so many trick-or-treaters that he had to bring in additional bags of candy.
“It’s proven itself,” Auerbach said of the reunified square.
At Kindred Fair Trade Handcrafts, employee Madeline Luttman said there were much bigger crowds this year compared to a year ago. On Friday, the store had customers at its door when it opened.
“There’s a lot more people in the area where there are shops now,” Luttman said. “We love that the square is open again. It’s such a great place for events like this.”
The temperate weather also likely played a role in bringing out more families, said Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of the downtown Russian River Brewing Co., with her husband, Vinnie. She said she saw children were wearing shorts as they played in the square with a temperature of 64 degrees, according to the display at the top of the nearby U.S. Bank Building.
The brewpub has picked up business since last month’s fires, especially as tourists who stayed away in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy have begun to return. Cilurzo said she knows the uptick has come from out-of-town visitors because they typically order a sampler tray of 20 different beers.
This year’s theme was “I Believe in Santa Rosa,” which organizers said reflected “the hope, resiliency, and volunteerism” in the aftermath of the devastating wildfires that killed 23 people in Sonoma County and destroyed more than 5,000 structures.
“I love this event,” said Ed Dempsey of Santa Rosa, who has attended at least four previous tree lighting ceremonies. “I love the people being here. I love the atmosphere they have.”
The event featured an appearance by a man dressed as Santa Claus, who arrived at the square on top of a Santa Rosa Fire Department truck. Dancers from the Sebastopol Ballet and the rock group, The Zins, also performed for the crowd.
Meanwhile, children played in an inflatable bounce house, while adults drank beer from Lagunitas Brewing Co. and Third Street Aleworks and sampled items from local food trucks.
Sean Jones, a 9-year-old from Santa Rosa, said he enjoyed playing in the reunified square. He said he would probably visit Santa later, with his Christmas list that includes video games as well as a new basketball.
A person-to-person candle lighting ceremony began around 7:30 p.m. to remember those who died over the past year. A countdown then preceded the lighting of the tree, when thousands of LED lights were turned on to cheers throughout the crowd.