Clear weather graced Cornerstone Park for the 31st annual Mayor’s Christmas Tree Lighting. Sweet voices rose in the dark night as elementary choirs and the GEHS Madrigal shared holiday songs. About 500 smiling people filled the park, sipping free cocoa from Rotary Club, fresh apple cider from Restoration Church, and delicious cookies from Central Bank of the Midwest. Sunflower Elementary School won Mayor Steve Shute’s audible shout out competition to see who had the most representation, but it was a close call.
The City Council members showed up, wreathed in smiles. Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus arrived on the fire truck, as they have every year. It was a cold, wintry night when the tree lighting tradition began. Phyllis Thomen, Gardner mayor from 1981 to 1989, was the mayor then.
Back in 1988, the temperature hovered at 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and the wind blew strong and steady. All agreed, though, that no chill could dim the joy of the ceremony.
Gary George, former USD 231 superintendent, said then that the cool weather helped create a festive atmosphere. Residents Don and Gini Lively boiled water in large tubs and toted it from the high school (now Wheatridge Middle School) to a table set up near city hall. Every year, the event brings back good memories, they have said.
“All the happy faces,” Gini Lively said then. “No matter how cold you were, it was good to see the happy, smiling faces when you gave them hot chocolate.”
The city had put in the new city hall, with property from former pharmacist Bill Bond. Bells and lights brightened the front of city hall. The tree came from resident Peggy Cramer’s front yard, and Karl Rueck, a retired pharmacist from the former Gardner Community Medical Center (Reece Hospital), helped Thomen as emcee.
The King’s Ringers, directed by former USD 231 music teacher Kipp Willnauer, huddled in city hall for warmth and volunteers hauled vats of hot chocolate for the first Mayor’s Christmas Tree Lighting. About 35 people attended the first tree lighting, so the event has grown to fifteen times its original size. Carol Lehman, who became mayor in 1989, had one lighting ceremony at City Hall before moving the event to its current location at Cornerstone Park, to accommodate the increase in popularity.
That year also marked the start of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund. The first year, 20 baskets of food were delivered, and the fund has grown every year. For many years, families often have gone to the park to have family photos taken for their holiday cards. Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Omisoka are among the worldwide holidays in December, and the tree-lighting holiday tradition welcomes every resident of the Gardner community.