December 4, 2023
• For the 69th year, Needham’s Town Common lit up in bright blue, commemorating the start of the holiday season.
Hundreds gathered at the center of town Saturday night to indulge in the festivities, which included performances by the Needham High School Concert Chorale and Olin College’s Fire Arts Club, free hot chocolate — compliments of Dunkin Donuts and the Charles River YMCA — and special visits from Olaf the “Frozen” snowman and, of course, Mr. Santa Claus himself.
Santa arrived by fire truck and walked onto the Common like a celebrity, as children rushed to welcome him with hugs and photos. He joined the town in a rendition of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” before kids lined up to share with him their Christmas wishes.
“It is a very busy time of year for me, but this is one of my favorite nights,” Santa said to attendees. “I love coming down to this town and see everybody in Needham and see the light lit.”
The 15-year-old sugar maple, planted in 2015 to replace the original 70-foot one, was covered in about 450 blue LED bulbs and surrounded by thousands of white lights across the Common, Forestry Foreman Mike Logan said. With a now smaller tree, Logan said they used fake limbs to bulk up its size, running wires across a gap in the real branches.
Once full of large maples, the Town Common has changed shape in the 29 years Logan has worked here, he said. This year marked the first tree lighting since the renovation, but the spirit and effort behind the event has always remained, he said.
Even outside of Needham — sometimes 30,000 ft above — Logan said the tree is a recognized and beloved fixture in Greater Boston.
“They always used to say that the pilots flying from New York to Boston would always point out Needham’s blue tree,” Logan said, “because you can see it from outer space, I guess.”
During the ceremony, Select Board Chair Marianne Cooley introduced honorary lightswitch flipper Mark McCullough, a nearly 23-year Needham firefighter who helped successfully perform CPR on a man at a Patriots game in September.
“Hopefully you’ll never need his services,” Cooley said, “but if you do, he’s the best you can get, like everybody we have.”
Dunkin Donuts and the Charles River YMCA supplied the hot chocolate, a staple of the lighting and a highlight for locals, including the Schlobohm family. But for Kaitlyn, 6, and her brother Tyler, 7, the most exciting part of the night was meeting St. Nick.
“I want a unicorn with lots of colors,” Kaitlyn said.
“I don’t actually know what I really want yet,” Tyler said. His mom Wei said he asked for a Sonic LEGO this year.
The first blue tree lighting in 1954 was inspired by Clarke Wertheim, then president of the Board of Trade, who is said to have visited Quint’s Florist in Newton, where they displayed a blue tree. At the time, the tree boasted an estimated 4,000 bulbs, according to local realtor Louise Condon, of Condon Realty.
Some speculate the color was chosen because it’s more non-denominational than traditional Christmas red and green, making the celebration more inclusive, said Amy Haelsen, Needham’s director of communications and community engagement. Regardless, it’s now synonymous with how Needham celebrates the holidays.
“It’s well-known that we have the blue tree. I think it’s really cool that it’s something that’s different than what every other town is doing,” Haelsen said. “It helps shine a positive light on the town.”
Haelsen credits Condon for keeping the tradition alive and strong. As a former member of the now-defunct Needham Business Association, Condon organized the tree lighting starting in the 1980s, raising thousands of dollars each year to cover the expenses.
Since the town took over the event recently, Condon said she’s enjoyed attending as a resident, just as she did when she moved to town in 1968.
“It’s been a tradition, and it opens us all up to the holiday season,” Condon said.
A Needhamite since birth, resident Steve Merritt started attending the ceremony as a child. The lighting serves as a special symbol of what it means to live in Needham, he said, and people always show up, no matter the weather.
“It’s our statement, it’s the blue tree,” Merritt said, wearing a decorative light bulb necklace. “It’s a great tradition to come out and have the lighting. I’ve been here in the rain, when it’s been very small crowds, some snow or it’s been a little bit smaller, but this is a great crowd.”