Under an almost full moon, they began drifting into the Joseph Aubain Ballpark in Frenchtown early Sunday evening – moms, dads, kiddies, grandparents – as though drawn by the pied piper, filling up the lot slowly until, like magic, everybody was there. And everybody acknowledged this year’s tree with a collective gasp of awe.
The 28-foot Norfolk pine tree was resplendent, opulent and patient as it stood regally awaiting the highlight of the evening, when its splendor would be completed with lights.
While Sunday’s annual tree lighting has been the focus of Christmas in Frenchtown since the late 1940s, the feeling in the crowd was the joy of the very first time once again. It never changes, and that’s the way it is meant to be.
The parking lot was transformed into a spirited dance hall as the evening’s piper, Richard Berry’s Get Together Quelbe Band kept up a beat which tiny Elizabeth "Lelel" Aubain couldn’t resist.
The petite 83-year-old Aubain is arguably the best dancer in Frenchtown. She dances her way through all the village’s festivities –– Bastille Day, Father’s Day and, of course, the tree lighting. She is the first one out on the floor, by herself, if need be.
This was village tradition. In fact, the night was given over to tradition.
Master of ceremonies Roy Magras set the tone for the evening when he introduced Leopold Olive as one of the night’s tree lighters, accompanying Miss Carenage 2013 K’zsa Hodge and Allan Richardson. Olive beamed proudly as Magras noted that he and his wife, Evelyn, had been Mr. and Mrs. Frenchtown in 1970.
After the lighting of the tree, which was blessed by Deacon Clement Danet, the St. Anne’s Choir sang a medley of Christmas music.
The evening’s keynote speaker, Sophia Aubain, spoke strongly of the significance of preserving local family history.
"We have a duty to our families, to our children to give them this knowledge. To tell them of things we did, what we ate, what we read. You can collect family photographs, the old black and while ones are wonderful," she said.
She pleaded with folks to take advantage of the island’s own Caribbean Genealogical Library, and to explore and contribute to the community’s Frenchtown Heritage Museum, which is filled with an abundance of local history, but always needs more.
Another tradition, the Voices of Love, marched in with leader Glen "Kwabena" Davis and his guitar leading the group. Smartly dressed this year in green and white, they sang their own spirited versions of carols and gospel and brought the audience to its feet, as the tambourines rang and the group swayed back and forth. It’s the very spirit of the season.
Henry Richardson, president of the Frenchtown Civic Organization which presents the evening, urged folks to persuade his brother Allan Richardson not to retire after this year. "Don’t let this happen!" he said.
Well, fat chance.
Richardson, who grew up around the corner, has been declaring his retirement almost annually. And annually he is the force behind the ceremony. He is the one who gets the tree, oversees its trimming, along with Department of Public Works employee Francisco Julian, and orchestrates the evening.
"Francisco is the one you see in the cherry picker putting the ornaments on the tree," Richardson said, adding, "We like to hold the ceremony a little early so you know the season has officially begun."
You can see Richardson every year, working on the tree, making stands and whatever is needed in his outdoor carpenter shop in back of the museum. He is the heart and soul of the celebration and the community.
Closing the ceremony, Magras spoke movingly about his own family’s background and the old traditions. "Remember when we would stay up all night going to everybody’s homes, singing and sharing ham and sweetbread?" he asked to a resounding chorus of yeses and clapping hands.
"Well, we can do that tonight, too," he concluded, sending one and all to the concession counter for generous servings of the old repast.
And then … the moment arrived. Loud sirens announced the arrival of Santa, a/k/a Johnny Aubain, in a bright red firebrick beckoned the four feet and under set who needed no urging. It’d been a long wait. And from the delighted squeals coming from the kiddies, it was worth every minute of it.
While the FTCO presents the evening, Santa is brought to Frenchtown by the Committee for the Betterment of Carenage. The tree was donated by Dennis and Janice LaPlace and May "Pealine" Magras.