By KATIE HOOS
Carols were sung and blessings were bestowed as the Chamber of Commerce of New Rochelle hosted its annual holiday lighting ceremony on Dec. 6.
Festivities included a visit from Santa Claus, who rode into the city square atop a fire truck.
The gathering was held on a mild December night at Memorial Plaza, a small piazza on the corner of Main Street and Memorial Highway in downtown New Rochelle, and featured multi-cultural symbols of the holiday season, including a fully-lit menorah, Christmas tree, and manger scene.
Frank Miceli, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and Democratic Councilwoman Shari Rackman, District 6, briefly spoke about the tradition of the holiday lighting ceremony and its significance to local businesness and residents throughout the community.
Keeping the festivities alive, Songcatchers, a non-profit chorus ensemble of children and adults, sang carols throughout the evening, bookending each speaker’s presentation.
Sister Beth Dowd, founder of Songcatchers, said the group has participated in the holiday lighting ceremony for nearly 35 years and looks forward to the event each year.
“This is one of a number of interfaith events that we participate in, each of them reinforcing the beauty of working, singing and praying together,” she said. “I like to think that, like a picture, a song is worth a thousand words. We always try to sing something for both the tree and the menorah, the two celebrations.”
The ceremony included benedictions from Rabbai Emeritus Amiel Wohl—a rabbi at Temple Israel of New Rochelle and founder of the Interreligious Council of New Rochelle—and Fr. Francis Maurice, a priest at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic parish. Rabbai Wohl and Father Maurice emphasized the significance of the season, telling the stories of Hanukah and Christmas.
While Hanukah and Christmas were well represented, this year’s ceremony did not include mention of Kwanza, a week-long celebration honoring African heritage.
Eli Gordon, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce said the chamber invites representatives from all faiths and cultures to join the ceremony, but was unable to obtain the mishumaa saba, seven candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa, for this year’s ceremony.
“We try to get total community involvement in the holiday lighting ceremony,” Gordon said. “That’s why we call it a holiday lighting ceremony, not just a Christmas tree lighting.”
Following a jubilant countdown from a group of children in attendance the city square tree was lit, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.
Soon after, Santa Claus arrived, sitting on the New Rochelle Fire Department Ladder 11 truck.
Leann DiMeglio, daughter of Fire Chief Lou DiMeglio, said she came out to “support the fire department and New Rochelle.” This is her second year attending the holiday lighting ceremony.
Handing out candy canes, Santa greeted groups of children, who eagerly told him what they wanted for Christmas this year.
Mariyam Muhammad, a lifelong resident of New Rochelle, and her son, Jacob Calvin, were coming from the library when they saw the holiday lighting ceremony and decided to stop by.
“I’m so happy we came in time for Santa,” Muhammad said.
Despite the smaller crowd of around 50 people, the holiday lighting ceremony generated feelings of community togetherness and officially brought the holiday season to downtown New Rochelle.
Gordon said the friendly atmosphere at Memorial Plaza is a great way to jumpstart the holiday season and, hopefully, will inspire people to shop locally.
“We do it so people are in the downtown areas and leave the event thinking they should go to their local stores to do their shopping,” he said.
To further promote local commerce, the City of New Rochelle is offering two hours of free parking in lots with meters or pay-by-space machines, excluding the New Rochelle Transit Center, New Roc City Garage, and permit parking areas from Monday, Dec. 9, through Tuesday, Dec. 31, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.