The King’s Ringers huddled in city hall for warmth; Santa came on the fire truck; and volunteers hauled vats of water for hot chocolate for the first Mayor’s Christmas Tree lighting ceremony about 1988.
“I recall it was pretty cool that night. That helped us sell a lot of hot chocolate and created a festive atmosphere,” said Gary George, former USD 231 superintendent.
Residents Don and Gini Lively recall boiling water in large tubs and toting it from the high school (now Wheatridge Middle School) to a table set up near city hall.
“It seemed like it took forever for the water to boil,” Lively said. “Don did most all the boiling and toting.”
The event brings back good memories, Gini said.
“All the happy faces. No matter how cold you were, it was good to see the smiling, happy faces when you gave them hot chocolate,” she said.
The traditional lighting ceremony and Mayor’s Christmas Tree fund started on a cold, wintry night.during the tenure of Phyllis Thomen, Gardner mayor from 1981-89.
The first Christmas tree, a cedar, was dug up from a resident’s front yard and planted in front of what was then “new” city hall.
“We had just put in the new city hall,” Thomen said. “I think we got the property from Bill Bond (former pharmacist.)”
Thomen recalls there were bell lights on front of city hall and lights on the tree.
“The tree came from Peggy Cramer’s (resident) front yard, and Santa came on a fire truck,” Thomen continued.
Karl Rueck helped Thomen emcee. Rueck was a retired pharmacist from the former Gardner Community Medical Center (Reece Hospital).
That year was also the start of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund.
“We delivered 20 baskets of food and stuff the first year, and it has kept growing,” Thomen said. “It was just great, and it has developed into a very nice event.”
But ask most of the volunteers what they remember about that first lighting ceremony, and they immediately mention the cold.
“It was very cold and wet and windy,” KippWillnauer, former USD 231 music teacher, said. “It was like 25 degrees.”
Willnauer, who directed the King’s Ringers of King of Kings Lutheran Church that night, said he recalls everyone gathering inside city hall to keep warm.
“We all huddled on the inside of old city hall, and then we all came outside for the ceremony,” Willnauer said.
The group performed Christmas songs, and he estimates there were about 35 in attendance.
“It was just freezing,” said Shirley Bruce Brown VanArsdale of Bruce Funeral Home. Brown said she remembers being thankful for a
camel colored coat with a fur hood.
And although she was helping pour hot chocolate, Brown recalls, “My fingers were just sooooooo cold.”
She also remembers that was the first event she ever worked on with former Mayor Carol Lehman.
Brown said she and Lehman spent much of the time rearranging the table until finally she said laughing, “We decided we had to many Chiefs and not enough Indians. That was the first time we ever worked together, and we’ve worked well together ever since.”
Lehman became mayor in 1989, and said she held one lighting ceremony at city hall before moving the event to Cornerstone Park.
“Last year was the 21st year for Christmas in the Park,” Lehman said. “My first year as mayor was 1989, and I think I did one lighting at old city hall. Then we started having the Christmas lighting at Cornerstone Park.”
The event was relocated, Lehman said, for additional space, and to get more children and families involved. She also hoped to start a tradition that residents would look forward to each year. The tree lighting ceremony was combined with Christmas in the Park.
“The tree in the fountain that has multi-colored lights symbolizes the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund,” Lehman said.
“I still love to drive by Cornerstone Park with all of those lights – it does my heart good – brings back lots of wonderful memories of past Christmas’s in the Park,” she continued. “Some families even go there to have their family Christmas pictures taken – how cool is that?”
One cold and windy, wintry night – a tradition was born