Crowds return for Detroit tree lighting in Campus Martius Park

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Even with some trees still bearing leaves, downtown Detroit on Friday night displayed all the signs the holiday season is starting on schedule.

The 18th annual Detroit Tree Lighting kicked off the weeks leading up to Christmas with a colorful ceremony that drew tens of thousands to Campus Martius Park.

Presented by the Downtown Detroit Partnership and DTE Energy Foundation, the event featured a bevy of food trucks, figure skating, local performers, even a visit from "Santa."

A figure skater performs for the crowd during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, at Campus Martius, in Detroit, November 19, 2021.

The festivities aimed to both entertain and help attendees feel merrier. And it worked.

"It's people getting the Christmas spirit," said Anita Ross, who was visiting from New Orleans with her family. "It's awesome."

The event marked a return to a live ceremony after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the lighting to be televised last year.

Crowds turned up even as the state reported nearly 18,000 new confirmed cases of the virus over two days and the largest one-week total in its confirmed cases — 53,575 — since the virus was first detected in Michigan in March 2020. 

Organizers encouraged mask-wearing for participants but it was not required. Masks and vaccinations also were offered at the event. Estimates were not immediately available on how many attendees took a mask or got a COVID-19 vaccine. 

The centerpiece of Friday evening was a Michigan-grown, 65-foot Norway spruce decked with ornaments and illuminated by 20,000 LED multi-colored lights. 

Families bundled up against the chill applauded as the tallest tree to adorn the space flickered to life with gold, crimson, violet, and emerald lights. Massive, box-shaped gifts were perched underneath, and a snowflake-shaped light twinkled at the top.

Minutes later, the crowd watched figure skaters glide across the ice on the Rink, which officially opened for the season Friday, to holiday-themed songs such as Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You." 

Olympic and U.S. Champion figure skater Ashley Wagner performs during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, at Campus Martius, in Detroit, November 19, 2021.

The scene took on new significance for Latina Brintley, who hadn't attended before but wanted to celebrate nearing the end of cancer treatments with her 10-year-old daughter and 4-year-old niece.

Anita Ross, her mother, had battled COVID-19 and Brintley's grandmother died from the virus.

"It was so much going wrong, it's great to see something go right," Brintley said as she stood near a Christmas ornament-shaped light and Detroit singer Thornetta Davis performed "Boogie Woogie Santa."

She and others who packed the park also watched performances by other singers such as "The Voice” Season 20 winner Cam Anthony as well as Olympic and U.S. national champion figure skater Ashley Wagner, who earned a 2016 World Silver medal and 2014 Olympic Bronze medal.

Blues singer Thornetta Davis signs for the crowd during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, at Campus Martius, in Detroit, November 19, 2021.

Some also found horse-drawn carriage rides or headed to the nearby Downtown Detroit Markets at Cadillac Square, which opened last month with 18 local retailers selling jewelry, decorations, toys, and more.

The frosty air carried the scent of hot chocolate, BBQ, fries and gyros from the assorted food trucks dotting Campus Martius.

The sights and sounds were a plus for Oscar Ferrari of West Bloomfield Township, who carried his 7-year-old daughter, Augustina, through the crowds.

"We're having a good time," he said.

The crowd watches the performances during the Christmas tree lighting ceremony, at Campus Martius, in Detroit, November 19, 2021.