Out of the many children who hoped to have a chance to help Santa Claus light the holiday tree Thursday at the downtown State College annual tree lighting ceremony, Breccan Mitchell, 3, was the lucky winner.
However, he almost missed out on the opportunity.
After Santa rode in on an Alpha Fire Company truck and Breccan’s name was announced from a drawing, there was no initial response from the crowd. But Breccan and his mother, Olivia Mitchell, of State College, claimed his prize just in time.
“We were on our way out since (Breccan) was getting cold and tired,” Olivia Mitchell said.
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Breccan, who also was given the honor of being the first child to have his picture taken with Santa, was particularly impressed with the size of the tree.
“It’s a big one,” he said.
The tree lighting ceremony, which started 15 years ago, is an annual event at the Allen Street Gates in which people gather to sing carols, enjoy cookies and treats, and support community members in need. Donations are collected for the State College Area Food Bank and Toys for Tots, and one donor is chosen from a drawing to help Santa light up the tree.
Community groups, such as Dan & Galla and the State College Area School District saxophone quartet, entertained the crowd on Thursday with holiday staples such as “White Christmas” and “The 12 Days of Christmas.” People of all ages, including families and students, danced and sang along while sipping hot drinks and nibbling on treats donated by Insomnia Cookies.
“The tree lighting ceremony is a great time for community members to gather with their loved ones to sing carols, drink hot cocoa and kick off the holiday season the best way — together,” said Irene Miller, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District.
Laura Shaffer, of State College, attended the tree lighting ceremony with her daughter, Tegan, 8, and her son, Wesley, 3. She said the relatively mild weather and musical entertainment made the evening enjoyable.
While Wesley was looking forward to seeing Santa, Shaffer said Tegan was there for another, very specific reason.
“Cookies!” she exclaimed.
Despite the festive atmosphere at the ceremony, there were somber reminders of less fortunate community members. This year’s tree, Miller said, was donated by the family of Grace Strong, a State College resident who died last summer.
“She embodied the holiday spirit all year long,” Miller said.
Capt. Mark Butler and Staff Sgt. Nicole Ball, recruiters for the U.S. Marines in State College, attended the ceremony as ambassadors for Toys for Tots.
Since 1947, the Marine Corps Reserve has sponsored the Toys for Tots effort annually throughout the United States. The Nittany Leathernecks Detachment, a community service organization composed of active, retired and former Marines, decided to make the national program work for Centre County. Since 1987, more than 3,000 needy families in Centre County have benefited from the Leathernecks’ annual fundraiser.
“This is wonderful having this (event) every year,” Butler said.
Styles Smith and Yuen Wahung, a Penn State graduate student and post-doctoral scholar, respectively, said they were enjoying the festivities and spirit of giving at the tree lighting ceremony.
Smith, who said he heard about the event through friends, said he appreciated seeing charitable donations starting early in the holiday season.
“It’s nice to see a small, local crowd coming out and celebrating the season,” Wahung said.