Dearborn Heights will be turning on its Christmas tree lights on for the 2011 holiday season next Tuesday.
In presenting the annual tree lighting ceremony, Dearborn Heights Parks & Recreation Department breaks it up into two different areas, according to Parks & Recreation Department Director Kenneth P. Grybel. The exterior part of the ceremony involves the actual welcoming of Santa Claus before city hall at 7 p.m., when the mayor presents St. Nick with the key to the hearts of the city’s good boys and girls.
The Crestwood High School Jazz Band will begin the festivities at 6:30 p.m. by playing carols until the arrival of Santa. Once the lighting of the city hall grounds takes place, Grybel said, Deputy Director Kim Constan will take care of the interior part of the event, which will involve preparing hospitality inside City Hall for those in attendance.
In his 25 years of organizing the ceremony, Grybel said, Santa has never arrived year-to-year the same way twice–“in fact, in the 25 years he’s probably come in the same way four times, so we have a number of different creative ways that Santa comes in.” These have ranged from coming in a reindeer-drawn coach, by helicopter, by being lifted off the roof of City Hall into the crowd, coming with elf Hollister by Hummer while Grybel instructed the crowd to hum “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by snowmobile, and on the trolley with the choir.
One year he planned with Santa to put a fog machine on stage, with Grybel yelling for Bill Zimmer of Building and Maintenance to fix the flickering lights, and “the place went wild” when the fog cleared to show Santa on stage. However, Grybel said the way Santa arrives each year is usually as much a surprise to him as everybody else, and there has been a few years when the ceremony started late when Santa delayed his scheduled 7 p.m. arrival by a few minutes.
Like one year, Grybel said, he was apologetically starting the caroling with no city dignitary or Santa in sight, when suddenly a bus with a sign “Santa Express” showed up, and out popped Mayor Daniel S. Paletko, City Clerk Judy Dudzinski, City Treasurer John J. Riley II, and so on until Santa himself was the last to step off the bus.
“Of course, the novelty over the past 25 years has been we have yet to bring in Santa the same way two years in a row,” Grybel said. “And it’s become an interesting component of our event, that people like to come to see the new way Santa would come in.”
Once Santa arrives on stage, a child from the crowd will go over with Santa to the “magic switch” to help him do the tree lighting. Any child up to age 12 can enter the free raffle drawing to determine who will join Santa on stage. In the City Clerk’s office, city staff will take the written entries from arriving boys and girls and place them into the basket (this registration will start at 6:15 p.m. and continue up until 7 p.m.), and Santa will draw the winning entry ticket once he arrives on stage.
“One year I had a child who couldn’t have been more than one year and a half—wasn’t even talking, so that was an interesting interview I did—and I’ve had some 12-year olds,” Grybel said. “So I’ve had them as old as 12 and every age in between over 25 years.
“So it’s not the same person every year, it’s not a dignitary, it’s basically what I think Christmas is all about—it’s for kids,” Grybel said.
When he first took charge of the ceremony, Grybel said, the city’s official Christmas tree had some branches dying off, to the point where it had to be trimmed up four or five feet off the ground, “and it wasn’t the most attractive tree to have a tree-lighting.” Getting a new-growth tree “would not be too impressive” at three feet high, so Grybel said he resorted to a practice he had started at his previous job running the Southgate golf course.
To enhance the golf course with mature trees, mainly barrier-type spruce trees, Grybel said he had asked people back then to donate front-yard or other accessible mature trees. So to find a new tree for Dearborn Heights, he ran newspaper ads and canvassed the community, and found a beautiful 25-foot spruce planted by the curb, blocking the homeowners’ view from their driveway.
Neighbor and former City Councilman Tom Wayne contacted the family, Grybel said, who were excited to make the donation. Probably about 15-20 people came out of City Hall, out of shock to see a huge hole five-feet wide and five-feet deep appear in the front lawn, and shortly after a huge tree be dropped into it.
The homeowners were happy, he said, being saved the tremendous expense of disposing the tree and removing its roots as well, and the dug-up City Hall soil was dumped into their lawn and seeded. The tree has thrived in its new home and grown to around 45 feet tall in the more than two decades since, he said.
“It has now become very challenging for our Building and Maintenance to decorate, the first couple years a 25-footer they could get up easily, now they have to bring out the cherry picker to get way to the top to decorate it,” Grybel said. “But I’ll tell you one thing, it definitive is what I would, and what I think many in the community would, envision an official Christmas tree for the community should look like.
“It’s massive, it’s impressive, and when it’s decorated, it’s gorgeous. It’s a great location where we have it, it seems to be doing very well, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be here for years to come to be part of the three-lighting event,” Grybel said.
Once the grounds are lit, Grybel said, the caroling will generally continue until about 7:30 p.m. The Divine Child School choir, which provided about 35 elementary school singers last year, will be returning again for this year’s ceremony, according to Grybel.
“It’s been a well-received event in this community, very well attended each year,” Grybel said. “On colder nights, probably in the area of 150-200, and on better nights we’ve been up to 350, maybe to 400 people that have turned out, so the weather will always control that event, so we’ll have to see what happens next Tuesday.”
By the very nature of recreation events, limited space makes indoor events very few, and outdoor events popular, Grybel said, so planning for recreation events can be very frustrating because inclement conditions can make “the finest event ever” poorly attended and received. But when the weather works out fine, “there’s tremendous self-satisfaction and reward when you do that.”
Fortunately, Grybel said, 25 years of Christmas tree lighting ceremonies has not required one cancellation from weather. There have only been a couple years, he said, that winds whipping high, extreme cold, or rainy drizzle may cut the caroling short out of consideration for young kids and older people.
“So I kind of read the audience as I’m up there (on stage),” Grybel said, “and we’ll abbreviate the ceremony if we feel weather is not conducive to being outdoors for everyone.”
Most of the people who come into City Hall to warm up with coffee or hot chocolate, Grybel said, while children can enjoy cookies. Parks and Recreation commissioners will be manning one free concession area inside City Hall, while senior citizen volunteers will be helping at another area as well.
“In the concourse there in the City Hall down the main area, people are liable to have some greeting of each other,” Grybel said. “Unfortunately in our busy lives, when we have children or we have so many pressures put on our lives in regards to being someplace or doing stuff, it’s just nice that we’re able to take time out.
“It allows a lot of the adults who maybe don’t see their neighbors or friends much, or don’t have time to actually talk to them, this becomes a nice environment for the community to come together and have some interaction. So it’s positive, I think, on all sides,” Grybel said.
At the conclusion of the tree-lighting ceremony, Santa will be available for visitations in City Hall. Children will be able to personally tell Santa what they want for Christmas, but Grybel said that one change this year is that parents are being asked to take their own pictures of Santa.
The city charged a nominal fee in past years to cover the cost of city staff providing picture-taking, Grybel said, but the majority of parents are now bringing their own digital cameras and not taking advantage of the service. So the service is being eliminated in favor of parents being allowed to take all the pictures they wish with their own cameras, he said, “just updating the event to match current trends.”
If a child can’t make the event to meet Santa one-on-one, is intimidated at the prospect of meeting Santa, or simply wants to give his or her list to Santa in writing so he doesn’t forget; Grybel points out there’s Santa’s Magical Mailbox right outside City Hall–“You can’t miss it.” Until Dec. 20, his department will pick up letters left by City Hall visitors and send them on to Santa, who will send back a personalized reply to every child who submits a letter.