Nearly 2,000 people huddled together Saturday evening, Nov. 30, to enjoy free cookies, cocoa, and to witness Santa’s arrival during Catonsville’s annual Christmas tree-lighting.
It was “the largest crowd we’ve had,” said Greg Morgan, who first launched the annual local tradition in 1993, and now serves as its de facto master of ceremonies.
For “an event like that, [it’s] 10% planning and 90% weather,” Morgan said. Last year, about 150 people attended despite the windy and wet weather.
“We had a really nice evening, just cool enough, no rain or precipitation,” Morgan said.
The event has grown exponentially since it began 26 years ago with just a few hundred people gathering outside the evergreen tree near the Catonsville Fire Department, Morgan said.
Morgan and his wife seized the opportunity to host a community tree-lighting after they noticed the tree being decorated by fire company members outside their station on Frederick Road was damaged, Morgan said.
The following year, the Morgans replaced the conifer with one from Taneytown’s JCK Christmas Tree Farm, which is owned by a Catonsville family, Morgan said.
The tree that currently sits outside the fire station, the fourth in its iteration, has been the same for the last 18 years or so, and is expected to last another decade, Morgan said. Previous trees had been felled during construction work.
Without the abundant county support it currently receives, the first gathering was small; No stage or fireworks, but the few hundred who attended still enjoyed holiday music and Santa’s arrival, shepherded by Catonsville firefighters on one of their engines.
The event has always been free, Morgan said, but has scaled up in some ways. Students from Mount De Sales Academy choir now sing Christmas carols, the sound system has grown larger to accommodate the larger mass of people, and in 1995, Lou Weinkam, Jr. built the Catonsville Santa House, and began chairing the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce’s Santa House Committee, which convenes every three months to discuss plans for the annual event.
Hours for the Santa House near Egges Lane begin after Santa Claus’ arrival during the tree-lighting. Kids can present their lists and take pictures with Claus at no cost throughout December on Fridays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., on Saturdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., and on Sunday, Dec. 22, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
The tree-lighting event costs between $5,000 and $6,000, but 16 volunteers help keep things running during the night and much of their resources are donated by individuals, businesses and community groups, Morgan said.
Bill’s Music House pitched in with the sound system, operated by DJ Leni Kern and Bill’s Music manager Brian Higgins; the nonprofit Catonsville Men’s Civic Association donated cookies and hot chocolate and hung up the lights and ornaments, made by students from Hillcrest and Westowne elementary schools.
The ornaments show Hillcrest students’ “different representations of what the holidays mean for them, or wishes for people,” said Hillcrest principal Jennifer Lynch, who, with Hillcrest teachers, helped pass out cookies and cocoa. “Every one’s unique,” she said.
“The sponsors are awesome, the people that volunteer are great,” Morgan said, but “what really makes the event is the families that come out and support it and enjoy it.”
“One of my favorite things is definitely seeing the lights,” said Cynthia Vazquez, a Mount De Sales senior who sang before the tree-lighting. “I’m a huge sucker for lights.”
Dressed in festive Christmas colors, Mike and Melanie Genau said they take their daughters Dylan and Tessa to the tree-lighting when the Catonsville residents are in town for the event.
Their kids “like the caroling, they like Santa coming by on the fire truck,” Mike Genau said.
For Catonsville firefighters, the night is relatively easy, said station Lt. David Hohenberger, who helps coordinate eight firemen on two apparatuses to ferry in St. Nick after the tree is lit.
The station’s Truck 13 and Engine 4 idle between Ingleside Avenue and Frederick Road waiting for the radio signal indicating it’s time for Santa’s debut, Hohenberger said. If the station needs to dispatch its ladder truck for an emergency, the smaller back-up truck would take over as Santa’s designated ride for the evening.
The Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department also joined to set off the fireworks from the station’s rooftop, Hohenberger said.
Another fire truck, this one outfitted with flamethrowers, air horns and inflatable Christmas figures, was a hit among kids who flocked to catch bubbles released from the truck’s bubble machine and giggled when flurries from the truck’s foam snow machine covered their clothes.
That truck belongs to retired Baltimore County firefighter John Purkey III. Dubbed “Purkey’s Party Pumper,” Purkey brings the 1985 fire truck he purchased on eBay to numerous parties and parades in the region, often at no cost.
“I like doing it,” Purkey said of his involvement in the tree-lighting over the last few years. “I like giving back to the community.”
Purkey’s four grandsons, whose names are marked with signage on the truck declaring them “The Purkey Boys,” operate the truck, and rotate their duties. For 12-year-old twins Nathan and Randy Purkey and 10-year-old Jackson Purkey, their favorite task is running the flamethrower.
Bradley Purkey, also 10-years-old, said he most enjoyed using the air horn, which uses a CO2 tank to produce the loud noise from the front of the truck.
Kids gathering by Purkey’s Party Pumper briefly departed to collect bright red balloons passed out by two Christmas elves, Nathaniel Corn and Rachel Mays of Catonsville antique shop Objects Found.
Corn and Mays dressed as elves for the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Saturday. The tree-lighting is timed to coincide with the unofficial holiday that encourages shoppers to visit local stores after Black Friday deals at big box stores.
“Basically, as many as we bring out, we get swarmed,” Corn said, laughing as children ran up to take the remaining balloons in his hand.
Leading up to the tree-lighting and fireworks, Morgan invited L.A. Dodgers pitcher and Catonsville High School 2007 graduate Adam Kolarek to give the countdown.
Kolarek, who now lives with his wife and newborn in Anne Arundel County, said he returns home during the Major League Baseball offseason, and remembers witnessing the Christmas tree lighting with his parents in Catonsville.
His hometown “has always been good, but it’s cool to see it improve over the years,” Kolarek said. “I never thought I’d be asked to come back and do something like this. … It’s really beautiful and impressive.”
After the lighting, families lined up outside the Santa House to meet the holiday figure. As the crowd dwindled, some remained behind to dance in the street and admire the glowing tree.
“You can do all the planning in the world, but without good weather and a great crowd, it wouldn’t be the event that it is,” Morgan said.