A dark and dreary evening was made bright on Friday, both literally and figuratively, as Charlottesville lit up with lights and cheers, song and laughter.
Two separate corners of the city ushered in the holiday season with a pair of annual celebrations, two unique traditions that have become red-letter days on the local calendar.
On the Downtown Mall, hundreds stared in awe as the city lit its massive Christmas tree at the 26th annual Grand Illumination. While on the other side of town, more than a thousand turned out for the 22nd annual Lighting of the Lawn at the University of Virginia.
The downtown Illumination was preceded by a celebration that has become a favorite for community members, with local brews and vintages, live music and a line of food vendors offering treats. Children drank hot cocoa, hashed out their wish list with Santa Claus, crowded an inflatable bouncy castle and stood in line to take photos with princesses from Disney’s hit movie “Frozen.”
“I think this is the stuff that’s important. That every city should be trying to figure out to bring people together,” City Manager Sam Sanders told The Daily Progress as he entered Ting Pavilion, the epicenter of the merrymaking on the eastern end of the Mall. “There’s nothing controversial about coming together to celebrate a holiday, whichever holiday you are choosing to celebrate. This is just a chance for everybody to be able to do it in one place. Take a look at the ‘Frozen’ characters, go get some good food and buy things from local vendors and then just celebrate a tree lighting.”
There was plenty of “good food” on offer. Hundreds of people lined up to enjoy pizza, mulled wine, Maryland-style crab cakes, doughnuts, homemade jam and more.
Keith Grooms, owner of the Pie Guy, has been serving food at the Grand Illumination for a couple of years. His business is most popular during the summer, so this winter event is his last big sales opportunity before the new year. If not for the rainy weather, he said there would have been an even larger crowd.
“It’s a good opportunity to come out before the year is over,” he said, just before selling his last vegetarian chili pie. “If it didn’t rain it would have been shoulder to shoulder. It gets packed.”
Inside the pavilion, children whispered their Christmas wishes to Santa as the Virginia Consort Carolers sang a rendition of the classic “Jingle Bells.” Parents wearing Santa hats with beers in hand escorted their children from the “Frozen” princesses to an inflatable slide. One toddler in a beanie slowly ate a corndog, choosing to nibble from the stick side instead of using a more traditional approach.
By 7:30 p.m., much of the crowd had gathered around the Christmas tree in the plaza in front of City Hall. Every year, Charlottesville residents are given the chance to weigh in on the tree’s name. The nominees are often plays on the names of famous actors, musicians and other celebrities. This year’s winner, Spruce Willis, was no exception.
Edward Warwick White, who drove in from Forest Lakes, stood by his mother awaiting the lighting.
“I’ve been coming to this for several years. It’s just a great way to kick off the holiday season,” he said, with a string of Christmas lights wrapped around his neck, a surprise gift from mother. It was their first time at the lighting together.
At 7:44 p.m., the crowd began the countdown.
And then, Spruce Willis lit up like the Nakatomi Plaza of “Die Hard” fame, evoking oohs and aahs from the crowd and some squeals of delight from small children.
“It’s my first time seeing Christmas tree,” one boy yelled to The Daily Progress while sucking on a candy cane.
What did he think of his first lighting?
“Candy!” he shrieked before turning his attention back to said confection.
Two miles away, a much larger crowd had gathered in front of the Rotunda at UVa for another seasonal celebration.
The Lighting of the Lawn is a last hoorah for students before they must bear down for final examinations. Some thousand people joined the festivities this year, a packed crowd on the Lawn that managed to stay cheery despite the dreary.
Students and faculty took to the stage throughout the evening, speaking, singing and reading poetry.
The Lighting of the Lawn has been a UVa tradition since 2001, meant to help foster unity after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that year. While it began as a relatively modest affair, it has grown in size and spectacle. This year was disco-themed.
But as in 2001, the celebration was marked by several homages to a tragedy: this time, the killing of three UVa students and Cavalier football players in November 2022.
Next to the Rotunda stood large numbers covered in lights: 1, 15 and 41. They were the numbers of Devin Chandler, Lavel Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry, the three players killed in the tragic shooting more than a year ago. Just as it was at its inception and last year immediately after the shooting, the Lighting of the Lawn was a place for students to find community while remembering and reflecting on recent tragedy.
At 9 p.m., the crowd erupted as the Rotunda was lit, followed by a singing of “The Good Old Song,” the de facto anthem of UVa.
Shortly after, a light show began and the party was on, with illuminated beach balls bouncing across the crowd, adding to the electric evening.
Times change, tragedy strikes, rain pours but the community comes together. Every year. The holiday spirit — and traditions — remain alive and well in Charlottesville, Virginia.