People gather in Wrangell for the town's Christmas tree lighting on Sat., Dec. 2, 2023. (Photo by Colette Czarnecki/KSTK)

The first weekend of December in Wrangell kicked off an annual holiday gathering with Santa, lighting the community Christmas tree and lots of music and crafts. 

It is usually a time of joy, but this was a different kind of togetherness as the community continues to heal after a fatal landslide.

At The Nolan Center, people of all ages stroll down Christmas Tree Lane.  

One joking couple, Jim and Judy Thompson, who said they didn’t remember their names, were enjoying the decorated trees before seeing Santa.

Judy explained why the festive trees are here in the first place and that’s because Christmas Tree Lane is an annual silent auction where people bid on the decorated trees for the Hospice of Wrangell.

The community is her favorite part of the event.

“I’m so glad everybody from the south side could get through,” she said. “They may open it up (the road) and try to get back to normal not normal.”

Jaynee Fritzinger and Colby Bell took their daughter to see Santa at the Nolan Center.

“I’m telling him about all the stuff we got at our house,” their daughter Layne Bell said.

At times Santa (who has tiny round ornaments clipped to his white beard) has a line of kids waiting to visit him and his helper elf AJ directs them.

Santa passed out candy canes and participated in Wrangell’s Midnight Madness and Christmas tree lighting festivities on Sat., Dec. 2, 2023. (Photo by Colette Czarnecki/KSTK)

Aj directs a child and asked “Want to sit by Santa and tell him what you want for Christmas?”

“Merry Christmas,” Santa said when he gave the child a candy cane.

When I got the chance to talk with Santa, I asked him how it was talking with everybody.

“Wonderful,” he said. “You get to talk to people and find out about people. It’s just wonderful and they open up to you for some reason.”

After Santa’s visit, people gradually gather on the streets in front of the town Christmas tree, anticipating the lighting. 

Fires burn in a few metal barrels that have images like candy canes and phrases like “Go Wrangell Wolves” burned into the sides.

Marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers wait on a table nearby for people to make s’mores.

Clay Hammer tends to the fires. He says the burn barrels were made for past events by a local man who updated them for the Christmas festivities.

Clay Hammer tends to the burn barrels during Wrangell’s Christmas tree lighting on Sat., Dec. 2 2023. (Photo by Colette Czarnecki/KSTK)

“One of the guys out at the Tyee hydro plant came in after hours and he built these barrels for us and he decorated them up and everything,” Hammer said. “The originals had eventually burned through and and weren’t safe to use anymore so he got in there and made these.”

Hammer says that every year’s Christmas tree festivities look a little different, depending on the weather.  

“It’s kind of different in that there’s not a whole bunch of snow on the ground and it is kind of a warm tree lighting this year,” he said. “Sometimes we’ve had young people pulling sleds around with kids in them and have them just be absolutely bitter cold; sometimes it’s raining sideways. Sometimes it’s just like this so you never know what you’re gonna get.”

When everything is ready, Mayor Patty Gilbert calls for a remembrance for the landslide victims before the tree lighting.

“Welcome Wrangell,” she said. “The tree lighting ceremony is the beginning of our holiday season. But in light of our November 20 landslide, I would like to have Virginia come over and offer a moment of silence in remembrance of those we lost.”

After the moment of silence, Bryce Yancey is called up for a tree lighting countdown.

“Bryce Yancey will light the tree if we have a proper countdown,” Mayor Gilbert said. “All right everybody ready?!”

The crowd counts down from 10 and once Yancey lit up the tree, everybody cheered.

People continue enjoying the festivities, by laughing, talking, eating s’mores  and shopping .