Villagers came from throughout the community Wednesday night to be a part of something special – the first Christmas tree lighting ceremony of the season – at Spanish Springs Town Square.
It’s an annual event in Florida’s Friendliest Hometown that typically signals the start of a festive holiday season. And despite chilly temperatures that brought out mittens, coats, scarves and ear muffs, Wednesday’s tree lighting also delivered plenty of smiles and rounds of applause as Villagers and area residents enjoyed the rock and roll sounds of Blue Stone Circle, singing Christmas carols with emcee Billie Thatcher and performances by The Original Villages Belly Dancers, The Villages Cheerleaders and the Aloha ‘O Ka Hula Dance Troupe.
And to bring it all home after the tree was officially shining bright, the always popular Villages Twirlers Show Team & Drum Corps took center stage with a holiday performance that included routines performed to favorite Christmas songs and fire batons that had many in the bundled up crowd on the edges of their seats.
“The tree lightings are really wonderful events for us because they bring all of the community together,” said the team’s captain, Ann Pelle, of the Village of Briar Meadow. “It’s so nice to stand there and sing the carols together with Billie Thatcher and just watch the whole audience waving their candles back and forth. Everybody puts their heart and soul into singing the songs and just remembering Christmas when we were younger and appreciating it today for all that we have.”
Pelle added that she’s very thankful to lead a team that puts so much effort into making the tree lighting performances something special for those who attend. And she added that the team enjoyed being the “closer,” or final act of the night.
“We’re good at what we do and we have a lot of heart and enthusiasm,” she said. “We love celebrating where we live and we like being the last act. Save the best for last, that’s how I see it!” she added with the huge smile that she’s known for throughout The Villages.
Meanwhile, Bill and Donna Smith, also of the Village of Briar Meadow, were enjoying a bit of celebrity status Wednesday night. That’s because Bill showed up wearing a red-and-white Christmas suit – complete with a hat and tie – that not only was bright and quite visible but also came complete with its own set of built-in Christmas lights.
“Well, it was a surprise to me,” said Bill, a retired teacher from Hummelstown, Penn., on the day Donna came home from Sam’s Club and asked him if he’d wear the near-neon getup. “I was like, ‘Duh. Yeah. I taught elementary school where we do a lot of stuff.’”
Needless to say, Bill and Donna were quite a hit with those in attendance at the tree lighting event.
“We’ve been stopped about a dozen times so far for people wanting to take our picture,” Bill said.
Donna also was decked out in her Christmas finest – but it was quite subdued next to her husband.
“My hat lights up,” she said with a chuckle. “I think that’s enough.”
As for the tree lighting ceremony, Bill said it’s an event they never miss.
“We’ve been to them since we’ve been here,” he said. “This is our sixth year and it’s amazing what they do.”
Phyllis Masetta, of Belleview, also was having more than her fair share of fun Wednesday night as she jammed along with the popular tunes being played by Blue Stone Circle.
“I come here three times a week,” she said. “I just love to dance and music is my passion. And to me, Christmas is everything.”
On the backside of town square, where vendors were set up and a variety of food and games were available, Village of Springdale neighbors Sally Grady and Annie Christopherson clearly were having a good time together as they sipped drinks and checked out various items for sale.
Grady, of New Jersey, was decked out in a Christmas-light-inspired necklace that lit up, while Christopherson was dressed for the cold in her Minnesota finest.
“We just came out to see the lighting of the tree,” Grady said. “We are having fun. That’s what The Villages is all about.”
Grady added that she’s found a variety of ways to have fun since retiring to The Villages about five years ago.
“I dance and I like to people watch. That’s why I keep her next to me,” she said with a long laugh as she glance at Christopherson. “I love all the activities here and I love my neighbors.”
“It’s beautiful down here,” Christopherson said, before planting a kiss on Grady’s cheek. “We really love being here.”
Another popular attraction at Wednesday night’s event was the opportunity to have photos taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Chris and Ashley Earles did their best to coax their young daughter, Lily, into enjoying the moment. And Omar Guerra and Kathia Benitez, of Belleview, who were more than happy to take advantage of the photo op, were all smiles afterwards.
“This is great,” Guerra said, adding a message that many were sharing with others on this special night. “Merry Christmas!”