An estimated 350 people — including a special visitor from the North Pole — attended the annual tree-lighting ceremony in Mount Airy Thursday night to help usher in the Christmas season.
“Once again we gather, not simply to light some decorations but to tell the story that lights the world,” master of ceremonies Kelly Epperson said in reference the reverent aspect of the holiday.
“Christmas is not an event,” Epperson told the crowd during the 17th-annual event on the grounds of the Municipal Building which was sponsored by the Mount Airy Appearance Commission. “It’s a spirit.”
That was amply evident as area residents, including many families with small children, jammed into the area for a program of music, prayer and the appearance by Santa Claus.
And then there was the matter of lighting the tree, a large white ash that waited darkly until being brought vividly to life with the tug of a lever on a nearby switch-box.
Entrusted with that honored task was Betty Wright, who has been an exponent of local historic-preservation efforts for many years.
“Betty’s passion for restoration is evident,” Epperson said in introducing her to the crowd. Wright’s body of work includes serving as president of the Mount Airy Restoration Foundation for nearly 20 years. She also is curator of the William Alfred Moore House on Moore Avenue, the city’s oldest.
An avid gardener, Wright additionally has been associated with Mountain View Garden Club for about 50 years, lending her skills to numerous beautification efforts.
Wright flipped the switch after a countdown from the crowd, which then cheered as its lighted branches brightened the darkness.
Also enhancing the spirit of the occasion was music by two groups. The Grace Moravian Church Band led by Hubert McMillian performed Christmas instrumentals as people streamed in for the start of the program.
Then after the tree was lit, the Gentry Patriot Small Ensemble of Gentry Middle School performed selections from the musical “Forever Christmas,” under the direction of Susan Gentry.
But an air of tension seemed to hang over the gathering, especially among kids, as everyone awaited the appearance by Santa. He eventually made his grand arrival in a new rough-terrain vehicle recently donated to the Mount Airy Police Department.
With its blue lights flashing, the vehicle, driven by Police Chief Dale Watson, made its way to the Municipal Building lawn where Santa was mobbed as he exited.
A long line of children then waited eagerly to sit briefly in his lap, relay their Christmas wishes and receive a bag of candy.
After her daughter Lacey visited with the jolly man in red, Misty Taylor, who also attended with another child, Camden, said they were drawn to the event by the “Christmas spirit” that brought the community together in a memorable way.
“We enjoyed the music,” added Taylor, a regular attendee of the tree-lighting program.
There was also a philosophical tone to the evening as program speakers made reference to the beacon of hope and comfort that the lighted tree represents in a sometimes-troubled time.
“It’s a symbol of joy,” Appearance Commission Chairman Bill Rountree said during an opening prayer.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.