Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree!

Community Tree Lighting Events Kick Off Holiday Season in the Lowcountry

    Of all the holiday tasks on Tony Claudio's to-do list, none looms larger than stringing lights on the official town of Hilton Head Island Christmas tree.
    Planted 11 years ago on the front lawn of the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, the Leland Cypress now measures close to 35 feet tall.
    "It's a monster job, but it looks so nice when it's finished," said Claudio, the Arts Center's facilities manager and designated tree decorator. "It gives you the feeling of a northern Christmas even if it's 80 degrees outside and the no-see-ums are biting you."
    Anyone who has ever participated in the annual trimming-of-the-tree ritual knows all too well the many pitfalls that lie in wait. There's the ill-aligned fir that begins to tilt, the prickly pine needles that won't hold the ornaments and those cursed temperamental bulbs.
    It's enough to turn the cheeriest of Santa's helpers into the grinchiest of grinches.
    Nuisances notwithstanding, communities across the Lowcountry will ceremoniously gather together this holiday season for the time-honored tradition of lighting the Christmas tree.
    But before the festivities can begin, there's the little matter of stringing the lights. It takes Claudio nearly a week to hang 3,000 twinkling bulbs on the town's Christmas tree and another 13,000 lights on the Arts Center building and grounds. He starts the process by carefully checking each of the 150-bulb strands, which now number in excess of 100. A run to Wal-Mart is almost always required to replace non-functioning lights.
    "Up until last year, I used a ladder and an extension pole with a hook at the end of it to put up the lights," Claudio said. "But the tree has gotten so big, we have to rent a cherry picker."
    Once a solo operation, the job now requires the help of one of the Arts Center's backstage crew to feed Claudio the strands as he circles the tree from top to bottom.
    "I layer the lights to make it look like snow," Claudio explained. "After it's all finished, I'll come back at night to find the spots I missed."
    He hangs the softball-sized ornaments with fishing line rather than hooks to better secure the decorations to the flaccid branches.
    "It's a lot of work, but it's really a fun project," said Claudio, who has been decorating the tree since he joined the Arts Center staff in 1997. "It puts me in the Christmas spirit."
    Held for some 20 years in Sea Pines Circle, the Community Christmas Tree Lighting was moved to the Arts Center not long after the visual and performing arts pavilion opened in 1996. One of the Arts Center's annual Community Outreach events, it was expanded into a two-hour yuletide celebration complete with live entertainment, kids' crafts, refreshments and the Hollywood-style arrival of Santa Claus under escort of popular radio personality Monty Jett.
    As is tradition, the festivities take place the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year, kazoo guru Rick Hubbard will serve as MC, introducing the local school and church choirs that will perform Christmas carols and holiday classics on a stage set up in the parking lot. As a special treat, the cast of South Pacific will present a sneak preview of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, running December 3-28 in the Elizabeth Wallace Theatre.
    At 5:30 p.m., Hilton Head Mayor Tom Peeples and his wife Mary Ann will pull down the handle of the oversized switch, lighting the towering tree as the crowd sings "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."
    "This is something Mary Ann and I always enjoy doing," said the mayor, now in his 12th year as honorary switch flipper. "It's a great community-building event."
    In Bluffton, Mayor Hank Johnston will do the honors at 6 p.m. Friday, December 5 at Town Hall. The children's choir from M.C. Riley Elementary School will sing carols and Santa Claus will make an appearance.
    The same night, Beaufort will host its 23rd Annual "A Night on the Town" in the historic district. Shops will remain open and complimentary refreshments will be served. Local choirs, dance troupes, bands and puppeteers will be performing throughout the evening. The celebration will close with the lighting of the city's official Christmas tree.
    Hardeeville also will hold its tree lighting ceremony December 5. The entertainment lineup will include storytelling, church choir performances and a visit from the jolly old elf.
    "We had 300 or 400 people show up last year-double what we had the year before," said Recreation Director Joe Gailey. "I think it's going to become an event people will look forward to each year."

Simply Stated - Tree Lightings around the Lowcountry

Hilton Head Island: 3:30-5:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29 at the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, 14 Shelter Cove Lane

Bluffton: 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5 at Town Hall, 20 Bridge St., Hardeeville: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5 at City Hall, 205 East Main St.

Beaufort: 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 5 in the downtown historic district.,

Ridgeland: 6 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4 Christmas parade on Main Street, followed by grand opening of light display at the Blue Heron Nature Trail, 321 Bailey Lane.

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