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Grand Illumination returns to the Downtown Mall

Charlottesville’s Grand Illumination returns to the Downtown Mall on Friday after switching to virtual last year because of the pandemic.

Officials in charge of the annual event said they are thrilled to be back in-person this year to kick off the holiday season. The City of Charlottesville and UVA Community Credit Union are presenting the free event, which moved to Ting Pavilion in 2019. The event kicks off at 5 p.m., and thousands are expected to attend.

The main event of Grand Illumination will lighting up the Christmas tree, a 30-year-old Norway Spruce from Fishersville, at about 7:15 p.m. In a recent online contest, the tree was dubbed Oatmeal, a reference to 1969 animated “Frosty the Snowman” movie.

Naming the tree Oatmeal has been a years-long goal of local resident Cole Rakes. When watching “Frosty,” Rakes said he resonated with the child who suggested Oatmeal as a name for the snowman.

“All the kids say Oatmeal is dumb,” Rakes said. “I was that kid.”

Oatmeal was the first idea that popped in his head when he heard of the tree-naming contest, which began in 2018. But in past years, the name didn’t generate enough traction. Instead, Spruce Willis, Spruce Springsteen and Spruce Bader Ginsburg received the top votes.

Still, Rakes kept trying. He was committed to the idea and wanted to hear local media and event announcers refer to the tree as Oatmeal.

“I realize Oatmeal is not a good name,” he said.

This time around, he started planning once the city started talking about Grand Illumination. The city put a call out for nominations and then chose five names.

Rakes said in an interview that he felt this was the year for Oatmeal.

After the votes were counted, he was proved right. Oatmeal received 35.8% of the 3,359 votes. Other finalists were Chicken Tree, which ranked second, Treeyoncé Noels, Timotree Chalamet, Snoop Logg, Spruce Almighty, Sprucella Cville, and Fir Elton John.

When he heard the news on the radio, he said he thought, “mission accomplished.”

“I was so pumped and going down the road screaming,” he said.

Rakes, who said he tends to go overboard on contests, “went crazy with the voting.” He told people at work and over Thanksgiving dinner about his Oatmeal push.

“We had votes coming from anywhere,” he said.

City staff members wrote on the Grand Illumination website,, that Oatmeal has made the top three in voting in recent years.

“You may recognize it from the beloved television holiday classic “Frosty the Snowman” as an eager little boy wanted to give his magical snowman friend the endearing name, but was ultimately overruled by his peers,” city staff wrote. “That memorable scene has been melting the hearts of the viewing public ever since the program first aired back on December 7, 1969 and we have not had adequate opportunity to honor that little boy’s naming wish… until now!”

in previous years, the city’s Christmas tree is usually decorated with thousands of lights. This year, the city added a 3-foot snowflake atop of the Spruce.

In addition to the tree lighting, Grand Illumination will include games for children such as bounce houses and a trackless train and a special visit from Santa Claus, according to a city news release. Attendees can also browse a holiday market with more than two dozen vendors for treats, crafts and hot food. Local breweries will be serving beer and wine.

Masks are required for all event staff and strongly recommended for attendees 2 years and older. The Blue Ridge Health District will be providing free COVID-19 shots for individuals 5 years and older from its mobile vaccination unit.

In 2019, attendance doubled with more than 4,000 people coming out for the event, said Joe Rice, interim communications director for Charlottesville. The event was previously held in the middle of the Downtown Mall near the Paramount Theatre.

Rice said Grand Illumination’s holiday concert has grown into a marquee event with organizers having to hold auditions for the past two years. Twelve acts will perform during the concert, which will feature American Military Spouses Choir and Voices of Service. Both groups have performed on America’s Got Talent.

Ting is sponsoring the holiday concert along with the new after party that will follow the tree lighting. Good Shot Judy, a swing jazz band based in Williamsburg, will perform during the after party.

“People are going to want to stick around,” Rice said. “We want people to have a good time.”

Parking will be free in the Market and Water street garages starting at 4 p.m. Rice encouraged people to arrive early to the event. Security bag check stations will be set up at all entrances.

Both vehicular crossings on the mall will be closed starting at 4 p.m. Friday. City Hall and Annex parking lots at 7th Street and Key Rec Center will be closed at 2 p.m., according to the release.


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