It was cold, windy and wet the night of Saturday, Nov. 24, and then-County Executive Don Mohler remembers thinking that nobody would show up for Catonsville’s annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.
“I kidded Councilman [Tom] Quirk; I said, ‘Well, this’ll be interesting, it’ll be you, me, [the organizer] and the people giving out the cookies,’” Mohler said. “And son of a gun, while they normally have maybe 1,000 people, there were still 150 people there with umbrellas.”
The event, always the Saturday after Thanksgiving, routinely draws 1,000-1,500 people who gather to munch cookies, drink hot cocoa and watch the lighting of the Catonsville Christmas tree, at the corner of Frederick Road and Egges Lane.
But, Greg Morgan, the organizer of the tree lighting for the past 25 years, said he wasn’t disappointed in how the event went or its comparatively low turnout.
“I was disappointed in the weather, but I wasn’t disappointed [overall]; 150 people still came out and we never had to have what you would call a Plan B,” he said.
Morgan said some ornaments fell off the tree in the wind and had to be cleaned up, but there are still “hundreds” on display. The tree that currently stands outside the Santa House is between 10 and 15 years old, Morgan said.
He said someone donated it, although he doesn’t remember who it was. It’s also the third or fourth tree over the course of 25 years that’s been planted for the Christmas tree lighting — others were felled during utility or construction work, he said.
“I lost count,” Morgan said.
By his account, the people who braved the rain and gripped umbrellas to see the tree light up and watch Santa Claus arrive in Catonsville on a firetruck had a great time — without spending a dime.
“My ultimate goal from the beginning — and we've been able to carry it out — is that this is a 100 percent-free event,” Morgan said. “The hot chocolate is free, the cookies are free, the candy cane from Santa is free, time with Santa is free, the music is free. It’s a community-driven event. I just want to be a part of it.”
There are, of course, others involved. While Morgan handles the tree lighting, he explained, the county government lends the stage for speakers and performers, and the State Highway Administration has to close Frederick Road, which is a state road.
And someone needs to coordinate the Santa House, where Santa Claus goes the night of the tree lighting and weekends leading up to Christmas Day.
That someone is Lou Weinkam Jr., who chairs the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce’s Santa House Committee.
Children can visit with Santa the night of the tree lighting, or on Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays from 2 to 4 p.m., until the Saturday before Christmas, Weinkam said. Like the tree lighting, there’s no charge for folks to visit with St. Nick or take and print a picture.
Weinkam and his wife, Dawn Weinkam helped design and construct the Santa House, he said. But for years, his involvement began and ended with organizing the event; he didn’t spend time in the Santa House himself.
“I never really appreciated how nice a thing it was until this year; I actually worked as a helper,” he said. “It was terrible weather, but there were a lot of people that came through, and a lot of people came through with babies, their first [Christmas], and I realized that it really does have a nice impact on the community.”
Teal Cary, director of the Greater Catonsville Chamber of Commerce, said the tree lighting can be a boon to local businesses, because it also aligns with Small Business Saturday, a national day that encourages consumers to patronize nearby retailers.
“I think it helps draw people here to the community,” Cary said. “It’s a whole day of celebration, capped off by the tree lighting. I think it makes the day special, especially for the restaurants and a few retail folks.”
Quirk, the councilman who represents Catonsville, said the tree lighting was a must-attend event every year.
“Catonsville has this, the [Fourth of July] Parade, they have so many wonderful programs and events that happen consistently, thanks to a core group of dedicated volunteers that make it happen,” Quirk said.
While Morgan, the tree-lighting organizer, admits that this year’s ceremony had challenges, he said he’s grateful for it, just like every year.
Some of the lighting events blend together, but some stick out, like the time Santa arrived on a firetruck too early, or the year the stage wasn’t set up in time.
Most memorable, Morgan said, was the first year — 1994 — that the Catonsville community came together for a tree lighting, after he pitched the idea to the fire department.
“To this day, I can picture where I was standing and lighting the tree. I can remember that and my kids, it being their first year, that probably is the most memorable,” Morgan said. “I will go inside the Santa House and watch every kid and their family go through and see Santa. I just like seeing it, and I like being able to thank the families.”