Tree ceremony lights up unseasonably warm downtown

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

The 13th annual Detroit Tree Lighting Ceremony at Campus Martius Park brimmed with the sights and sounds of the holiday season: ice-skating, Santa Claus visits, colorful Christmas lights.

Jason Rzucidlo, left, and Cory Martin take a selfie Friday during a warm tree lighting ceremony at Campus Martius Park. Colder temperatures are expected today.

As the sun set over the crowd teeming across the park Friday night, the thermometer hovered in the 60s, more than 15 degrees above average.

Still, despite the spring-like weather, a merry mood remained among the thousands who flocked there — some donning shorts and T-shirts — for a taste of winter.

“God has blessed us with a beautiful day to enjoy the festivities,” said Clarice Gully, a retiree from Detroit, while sitting near her grandchildren. “I love it.”

This year, the ceremony kicking off the “Season of Winter Magic” unfolded just hours after Detroit Metro Airport notched a high temperature of 73 degrees, shattering the previous record, 69, set in 1941.

The unexpected warmth complicated preparations for a highlight of the night: opening the ice rink. A “chilling system” worked overtime to ensure optimal conditions for the synchronized skating, said Robert Gregory, president of the Detroit 300 Conservancy, which produced the ceremony.

“It was probably the biggest challenge we had ever in the history it’s been here, but we made it through,” he said. “The ice is here tonight.”

Also present were scores of families pushing strollers, sampling cinnamon rolls and snapping photos near light-festooned trees still bearing fall leaves.

“I’m happy to see people enjoy themselves,” said Kameron Bryant, 12, of Detroit, who attended the event with his grandmother.

What sparked the greatest response was the centerpiece of the gathering: lighting a 60-foot Michigan-grown Norway spruce — a gift from the DTE Energy Foundation.

Just before 8 p.m., an estimated 19,000 energy-efficient, multicolored LED lights flashed to life amid sparkling red and silver ornaments.

The switch delighted the crowd, which burst into cheers while gazing up at the tree towering above the Woodward Fountain.

“I can’t believe this is Detroit,” said Shahid Kagal of Northville, who snapped selfies with his wife Tasneem and daughter Zahra a few steps away from the spruce. “This is great.”

Olympic figure skating medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White practice their program before Friday’s ceremony.

Earlier, the audience assembled to watch officials light the Salvation Army Red Kettle. The display symbolizes the campaign’s launch to raise $8.4 million this holiday season to offer about 3 million meals and provide 652,000 nights of shelter to those in need across Metro Detroit.

The throng stayed for other festivities: musical performances from recording artist Aaron Neville, appearances by Olympic skating champions Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

Along with that, officials announced that the renowned Figure Skating in Harlem youth development program would come to Detroit as part of a planned national expansion.

Teaming with the nonprofit Michigan Women’s Foundation, Figure Skating in Detroit is set to serve hundreds of girls ages 6 to 15 through community workshops, summer camps, skating shows and an after-school program, leader Geneva Williams said. “It’s such a phenomenal time to bring this kind of girl-power program here.”

Friday’s conditions were unusually warm for ice-skating, but changes are ahead across Michigan.

High winds are expected as a cold front moves in, said Alex Manion, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Those could produce big waves to the Great Lakes. Waves in the Lake Superior were forecast to reach 22 to 33 feet in Lake Superior early Saturday.

Then, Saturday could feel more like mid-November as temperatures drop to the lower 40s with a chance of a rain and snow mixture later, Manion said. No significant accumulations are expected.

Readings overnight into Sunday are forecast to plummet into the 30s — cold enough to turn any precipitation into light snow or flurries, Manion said.

The weekend closes with highs hovering in the mid- to upper 30s — about 10 degrees below average.

Northern Michigan is also set to receive strong winds, and snowfall in places such as Gaylord could accumulate, according to the weather service. “The combination of gusty winds and snow will create near white-out conditions at times Saturday afternoon and evening, especially in lake-effect areas off Lake Michigan and Lake Superior,” the weather service said.

Staff Writer Nicquel Terry contributed.