Thousands turn out for tree ceremony

LAWRENCEVILLE - An estimated 10,000 people turned up at the Historic Gwinnett Courthouse for the 19th annual tree lighting Thursday.

Mild temperatures and clear skies formed a perfect evening for live entertainment in the gazebo outdoors. Thousands of families filed through the historic courthouse, admiring rooms beautifully decorated for Christmas and inspecting displays of military memorabilia. For about three weeks, six people per day labored to hang garland, decorate indoor trees and erect rooms full of themed displays.

Although sisters-in-law Amelia Martin and Susan Wages are sixth-generation Lawrenceville residents, Thursday was their first time attending the tree lighting or touring the historic courthouse.

"We came out to spend time with each other and the grandchildren," Wages said.

This year's tree sported a star on top, which replaced the big red bow of previous years.

"We wanted something lit up on top," said Elizabeth Radley, former program supervisor. "The staff continues to look for ways to change so they can provide a unique experience. Some of our families have made this a holiday tradition for 15 or 18 years."

The 33-foot-tall cedar tree came from a tree farm in Lovejoy, courtesy of the Lawrenceville Tourism and Trade Association.

"Last year's tree came from former Mayor Bobby Sikes' front yard," said Sharon Plunkett, director of operations, Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation. "Before that, our trees came from North Carolina. We are working to make the celebration as local as possible and still have a splendored tree."

As entertainers finished the last chords of the song, "Let There Be Peace on Earth," thousands of lights burst on and illuminated the tree. By then, it was time to coax Santa Claus out with his favorite song, "Jingle Bells." The grand old gentleman arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, escorted by two police motorcycles and a patrol car with blue lights flashing. Families and children were lined up to the end of the block, waiting to give their requests.

"He will see hundreds of kids tonight," said Michelle Walker, Santa's daughter. "They get their picture taken with him and a few minutes in his lap to talk to him."

Walker said Santa occasionally comes out of his North Pole retirement after Christmas.

"He made an appearance at a Girl Scout camp in July and surprised all the Girl Scouts," Walker said.

Santa Claus will return to the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse beginning at 4:30 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings until Dec. 23. The courthouse will also be open for self-guided tours. Horse-drawn carriage rides will be available Dec. 9 and Dec. 16.