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Updated: November 10, 2021

Cities celebrate holidays with in-person tree lightings, while Portland opts for 'tree cam'

Courtesy / Portland Downtown A view of a previous holiday tree in Portland's Monument Square. This year's tree will be illuminated Nov. 26, but with scaled-down festivities.

Ceremonial lightings of festive evergreen trees are returning to cities nationwide as they get decked out for the holidays — but not in Portland.

As it has for decades, Maine’s largest city will flip the switch to illuminate a tree in Monument Square on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. But because of concerns about the potential spread of COVID-19, the event will take place for the second year without the typical crowd of 4,000 or more.

Portland Downtown, which works with the city to coordinate the tree lighting and other holiday activities, is playing it safe.

“We feel this is a prudent approach,” the organization’s executive director, Cary Tyson, told Mainebiz on Tuesday. “The [tree lighting] just gets so crowded. We decided to make this a more low-key event. We’re lighting the tree, not doing a tree lighting.”

The city plans to deliver this year’s tree — a 45-foot balsam fir, donated by a property owner on Lane Avenue in Portland — on Thursday, Nov. 18, at about 9 a.m. The lights go on eight days later at dusk.

Portland Downtown says on its website: “While there will not be a countdown to the tree lighting this year, the lights will be illuminated Friday, Nov. 26. Passersby are welcome to enjoy the tree in person — but please follow local health and safety guidelines: wear a mask, avoid crowds, and maintain social distance.”

Like last year, a video camera overlooking Monument Square will live-stream views of the tree lighting, and of the tree throughout the holiday season. The remote celebration is sponsored by Hood Eggnog and hosted by the Portland Public Library.

In addition to the holiday tree, another lighting will usher in the winter holidays.

Portland will mark the start of Hanukkah on Sunday, Nov. 28, with a lighting of the state's largest menorah on the steps of City Hall. That event is part of a larger celebration — a parade, organized by Chabad of Maine, that winds down Congress Street earlier in the afternoon. 

To encourage holiday visits and shopping, Portland Downtown is also offering the “Merry Madness Passport,” a pocket-sized booklet filled with coupons and information for discounts from local businesses during December. Portland Downtown is giving away 2,500 of the passports at no cost, and on Tuesday Tyson said 1,500 of them had already been snapped up.

In addition to Portland, Bangor and other Maine communities have also announced plans to kick off this year’s holiday season in a pandemic-conscious style. But not every city is so vigilant. Boston, Chicago, Detroit and New York are all resuming large, in-person events after switching to virtual ones in 2020.

Portland’s celebration dates to at least 1939, when a photo archived at the University of Southern Maine shows four illuminated Christmas trees in Monument Square.

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