Gwinnett will light 21st tree

LAWRENCEVILLE - Moments before the perennial lights burst to life, Tammy Gibson likes to meander through the crowds, feeling the anticipation, soaking up that festive vibe.

Last year, in the shadows of the Gwinnett Historic Courthouse, Gibson met a family of recent transplants hungry for a quintessentially Christmas-y tradition. Kids in tow, the family gawked at the crowds, the carriage rides aplenty and a special appearance by the Jolly One himself, determining they'd found exactly what they were looking for, Gibson said.

Lawrenceville's Lighting of the Tree celebration just does that to people.

"I think, all in all, (the event) is just a great place for family and friends to gather," said Gibson, resources and marketing coordinator for Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation. "It kicks off that holiday spirit for everyone."

For the 21st year running, after-dinner feasters will pack Downtown Lawrenceville on Thanksgiving night to watch the county's most recognized landmark - and a towering Spruce - come alive with thousands of holiday lights.

To hear organizers tell it, there's no more festive way to get that post-gluttony digestion going.

And what a tree it'll be. The centerpiece of this year's celebration is a 35-foot Norway Spruce, straight from the Sugar Mountain Nursery in Newland, N.C. (Don't sweat, drought mongers: The tree will be drinking only recycled water gathered in rain receptacles or used in daily cleaning, event leaders said.)

As always, the lighting is a double-team effort put forth by Gibson's group and the Lawrenceville Tourism and Trade Association. Festivities begin this year at 5 p.m. with carriage rides and self-guided tours of the decorated courthouse, said Rebekah Cline, marketing and membership director for the association.

Local historian Mavis Burson - who had the honor of lighting the tree for several years - said the traditional started in 1987 under the name "It's Christmas on the Square." Back in those days, the city adorned trees rooted in courthouse soil - first a Cedar; when that fell, a Leyland Cyprus, which soon died - until leaders opted for a fresh-cut tree in 1994.

Burson also offered these historical nuggets:

· Atlanta newscasters John McKnight, Ken Cook, and Randy Travis (currently) have all emceed the event;

· Santa wasn't included in the program until 1992;

· After 15 years of service, carolers that have always held shop under the tree are being replaced with animated reindeer;

· Gwinnett Choral Guild is the longest running entertainment group that's still part of the program. (They used to sing when the city hosted the lighting, bereft of a sound system.)

Gibson said revelers sometimes forget the behind-the-scenes lead-up to the lighting, that behind that galaxy of Christmas lights is a parks and recreation work force that makes it happen.

"They take a lot of pride in the artwork and small masterpieces they create," Gibson said. "(They do it) just to be able to see the smiles and looks of amazement of those attending that night."