Big holiday tree shines in Little Apple

By Bethany Knipp

The Little Apple resembled the original Manhattan Friday night in the way it marked its first Festival of Lights. It celebrated big.

Everything about the festival was big: the crowd of hundreds of people and the 50-foot Christmas tree that was the focus of the holiday event.

The tree, which was made in Kansas City, is artificial and sits in Blue Earth Plaza on Third and Colorado streets. Colin Noble, owner of the adjacent Candlewood Suites, had the idea to bring the tree to Manhattan.

“I had an idea that this square could be made into something really special,” he said. He then told three other people with businesses in the area - Gwyn Riffel, Brad Everett and Wade Radina - about it. They and some other community members helped sponsor the tree’s arrival to Manhattan.

The tree lights up in rhythm to Christmas music. It, along with blue and white-lit trees in the plaza will be sparkling from now through the first week of January, according to Radina, the owner of Radina’s Coffeehouse & Roastery and also the future Radina’s Bakehouse, which will open near the plaza.

The Festival of Lights tree was turned on with the press of a button from a boy selected in the crowd of winter-dressed Manhattanites.

Little Dirks Musa was wearing a cowboy hat for the evening’s festivities and was prompted to the stage by Santa Claus, who arrived to the event by sleigh.

Everett, general manager of the Hilton Garden Inn, gave the Manhattan crowd a jovial speech.

“We are pumped and thrilled about this opportunity to pull the community - and hopefully it will grow to have surrounding communities come to the Little Apple - to see what I think will eventually be quite an event,” he said.

Everett, a former mayor, turned the stage over to the city’s current mayor John Matta.

“Tonight, we’re starting a new Christmas season tradition here in Blue Earth Plaza,” he said. “I’m sure that a lot of the kids here today, 20 or 30 years from now, they’ll be bringing their kids.”

Once the tree was turned on by cowboy Dirks, its lights danced to “Joy to the World.” The crowd took in the sparkling lights and lined their children up to see Santa parked in his sleigh. Families also rode in a horse-drawn carriage.

U.S. Army Sgt. Rex Mason said he and and his family came to the festival because they live only a block away from the plaza and wanted to take part in the community after being in Manhattan for only a month.

Mason’s 3-year-old son Jonah nodded profusely at the prospect of seeing Santa that evening.

Festival attendee Laurie Schoap decided to come see the lights to get in the holiday spirit.

“I just love the atmosphere. It gets you in the Christmas mood,” she said. “Because of what it is, I didn’t want to miss it.”

Radina said that the event was funded by more than $100,000 in donations.

But he said lighting the tree is a lot less expensive than people might think because the lights are energy-saving LED lights.

“You could light that tree up with an outlet from your house,” he said.

The size of the tree was certainly part of the draw. Radina said that to his and the other tree sponsors’ knowledge, there’s no record of a bigger tree having been erected in Kansas.

Everett said the event exceeded his expectations and noted the importance of what the light festival meant by bringing the community together.

“In my mind and heart, it exemplifies what the season’s all about. You can go ahead and take a competitor and basically set aside your differences and look for a greater good,” he said.

Everett said he hopes that next year the tree will be even bigger. The tree is built in four-foot sections, so they have the option of adding on to it.

“We want to raise it up another 20 feet,” he said.

Noble agreed.

“Next year, we’ll hopefully take it up a notch or two.”

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