Mavis Burson walked around the 30-foot Christmas tree in front of the Gwinnett County Historic Courthouse on Wednesday and pulled a few branches down to her height.
Though Thursday night was the official tree lighting, with a nice crowd and Santa on hand, Wednesday was Burson’s time to add her touches.
She reached into a plastic bag and pulled out a roughly 25-year-old ornament and hung it from the branch. She emptied her bag of about a dozen ornaments and marveled at the tree that was set to be the center of attention in a little more than 24 hours.
“We can count on you every year?” Gwinnett County project manager Tina Pangle asked.
“Of course,” said Burson, a longtime Lawrenceville resident.
“You’re on my short list,” Pangle said.
The ornaments Burson brought had been stored in her basement and used decades ago on trees that stood in downtown Lawrenceville, which she helped decorate. She and her daughter-in-law, Danette Burson, restored some that had lost their hooks.
As she looked up at the tree, there was some history and tradition mixed with novelty. Burson surrendered the large bulbs for the tree in front of the courthouse, but she kept a few of the smaller ones at home as mementos.
“I’ve got to have a few keepsakes,” Mavis said.
With more than 5,400 interested guests on Facebook, the annual tree lighting ceremony at the Lawrenceville Square in front of the Historic Courthouse is something different from what it was when Mavis was getting the annual tradition started.
There was no annual tree lighting ceremony in Lawrenceville until Mavis made it happen in the early 1980s. Her husband, Mahlon Burson, had recently been elected to Lawrenceville’s city council. She was like a one-woman workforce for several years, commanding a handful of volunteers before Gwinnett County took over the event. The tree-lighting ceremony didn’t take place downtown back then. It was east of downtown near Rhodes Jordan Park.
“It was a cedar tree that someone had donated and it was not planted into the ground,” Mavis said. “The second year we had decorated it and the wind blew it over, decorations and all.”
Back then, the ceremony drew 200 to 300 people. There was no public address system and not much of a budget, either. The entertainment the city worked with did the job for exposure and experience. Burson said the Gwinnett Choral Guild was one of the early entertainers.
“Could barely hear them,” Mavis said. “As time passed on, we grew and grew. … The last several years had been thousands.”
Burson, who turned 90 years old this year, moved to Lawrenceville when she and Mahlon were married in 1948. Her civil service and her husband’s 26-year career on the city council have led her to care a lot about the city of Lawrenceville, she said.
“We worked to get it looking better, and it keep improving every day,” Mavis said.
Though Mavis couldn’t attend Thursday night’s tree lighting, Danette was on hand with her husband — Mavis’ son — Mark Burson and their granddaughter Lana Nichols. Danette took a video of the tree being lit and some photos of the ornaments she and Mavis had restored.
Thirty-two years after Burson’s first tree lighting, 2-year-old Parker Foster watched the tree light up from her grandfather’s lap with eyes as big as those ornaments. She she went to the tree lighting ceremony at the Historic Courthouse last year, and her mother, Karen Foster, and grandparents have attended for years before that.
Jill Hanchey, Parker’s grandmother, said the family has Thanksgiving lunch before staking out a spot for chairs at the courthouse at approximately 5 p.m.
“We would come here ever since (Karen) was a little girl,” Hanchey said.