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Another Portland Blog

Monday, November 26, 2007


When Christmas tree lighting ceremonies go bad

The Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Pioneer Courthouse Square- it's either a magical event that brings the community together for a festive kick-start to the holiday season or a hellish spectacle you'll regret going anywhere near. Which version you experience probably has a lot to do with where you wind up standing.

I took my parents downtown on Friday for the ceremony. Our first mistake was a stop at one of the Starbucks in Pioneer Place. The two baristas running the machines were completely overwhelmed by the line of customers stretching down the mall. It took us thirty minutes to get our drinks, putting us on the edge of the square ten minutes past the scheduled start time for the ceremony.

20,000 spectators showed up, which meant there was no standing room left anywhere but on the edge of a sidewalk along SW Morrison by the time we got there. Among the large, ever-growing mass of people standing with us: a pregnant lady, a couple with a baby carriage and a large, multi-generational family with small children in tow. We and the dozens of spectators alongside us weren't blocking the sidewalk exactly but our presence created a bottleneck. Rather than cross the street to avoid the mess, commuters shoved their way past, muttering obscenities or shouting "move!" Further adding to the ugliness, a half-hearted holiday speech by Tom Potter and throngs of late arrivals that shoved their way through the crowd into the already filled-to-capacity square.

My parents have lived in Portland for decades but they'd never been to the tree lighting ceremony. While a situation like this might send more sensible people to the closest bar with a happy hour menu, it had become a challenge. Could we endure the elbows and pushy spectators? The freezing temperature and the glares? Would we at least last longer than the pregnant lady who was getting repeatedly nudged into a wall?

Answer: yes. Her husband and her decided to flee around 6 PM, as the Portland Jazz Orchestra rolled into minute ten of an endless cover of "Blue Christmas." The crowd was turning uglier. All around us people were looking at their watches and complaining. The temperature was hovering somewhere in the mid-30s. Small children were crying. Long pauses between songs suggested that the band was stalling. Were the organizers ever going to get on with it and free us from our voluntary holiday masochism? And where was Santa, the MC who usually lights the tree? My best guess at the time: drunk. Possibly drunk in traffic, drunk at Mary's Club or drunk in traffic on his way to Mary's Club.

Right around 6:15, after 30 minutes of staring at the courthouse clock and trying to devise a plan to toss my Starbucks cup on the ground in a way that no one around me would notice, Tom Potter rolled back onstage to a chorus of boos that had to sting, even for an "irrelevant" lame duck like him. The crowd might have stormed the stage and lit the tree themselves if Santa hadn't hopped up there with him. Our collective morale immediately soared and Santa got right to point. BOOM! The tree was lit and two seconds later we were on our way towards 4th Avenue.

"Never again," my Mom groaned on our way back to a Smart Park garage. I'm not sure if her squished holiday spirit had more to do with the dragged-out ceremony or the trustafarian panhandler who yelled at me after I meekly apologized for not having any change. Either way, thanks Portland. From my family to yours, happy holidays!

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