• David A.F. Sweet

Shedding Light on a Lake Forest Holiday Tradition

By David A. F. Sweet

Since the Lake Forest Tree Lighting Ceremony dawned in 1987, Tim Haskett has been involved in each one.

Back then, the Lake Forest High School choral director chose holiday and Christmas songs to be belted out a cappella by the Forester Singers, and he helped print lyrics to share with the 400 or so people who attended the day-after-Thanksgiving event in Market Square.

The success of the inaugural tree lighting prompted upgrades the following year. A piano player was added. This time, Haskett brought more than 100 LFHS singers, nearly triple the original 35. After the large tree was lit, the singers belted out The Hallelujah Chorus in the cold.

A performance by the Lake Forest Dance Academy dancers is a beloved part of the Tree Lighting Ceremony.

Today, thousands stream into Market Square annually to enjoy the festivities put on by The Friends of Lake Forest Parks and Recreation Foundation with financial help from the City of Lake Forest and Lake Forest Bank & Trust.

The Nov. 26 event kicks off with a movie at Gorton Community Center in the John & Nancy Hughes Theater. Fittingly, Home Alone is the usual choice, given that former Lake Forest resident John Hughes wrote the screenplay. In Market Square, children enjoy creating ornaments and watching ice sculpting (a live TV even sat inside the carved block of ice one year). Then, they can share their Christmas list with Santa when he arrives.

Donut holes and hot chocolate are in abundance, thanks to the Lake Forest Bank & Trust Co. In past years, The Gallery restaurant has passed out s’mores, and a local insurance agent has offered popcorn. The Chamber of Commerce picks a winning drawing from a local student and hands out buttons with the design on it.

As darkness begins to spread, the Lake Forest High School Choristers sing Christmas carols, and Scouts’ choir alumni join them on stage. A Rockette-style kick line performance from the Lake Forest Dance Academy follows. By the time the tree is lit, usually by the family of the mayor or by a member of a local non-profit, about 5,000 people have engaged in the festivities.

“It’s crazy how it all happens,” said Lake Forest Parks & Recreation Program Manager John Eldridge. “Maybe 100 or so come early. But at 5 pm, in the blink of an eye, there are tons of people.”

“What makes the event special is that it’s so magical,” Eldridge added. “It’s very family-oriented. Some people have been going there since they were little kids. Now they’re adults.”

Aside from seeing the magic on his students’ faces as they caroled, Haskett always enjoyed when choral alumni showed up and sang.

“Through the years, my former students introduced me to their husbands, wives, and children,” he said. “That was one of the highlights of my teaching career.”

Because of the pandemic, the tree-lighting event was skipped in 2020. But to make up for it, Lake Forest lit up eight of its neighborhood parks for the whole holiday season, while decorating them with Christmas trees and wreaths.

This year, the Tree Lighting Ceremony is slated to return in full force. Alas, there will be one change: Haskett, who retired from LFHS in 2020, will not be there. He plans to spend Thanksgiving in either Colorado or California.

“I will really miss attending. The tree lighting has become a part of my DNA,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be looking at my watch saying, ‘Well, they’ll start singing at the ceremony about now.’”

(The Friends of Lake Forest Parks and Recreation Foundation is accepting donations from the community to enhance this amazing Lake Forest tradition. Visit its website to learn more.) Originally published in the City of Lake Forest’s Dialogue Newsletter. Read The Dialogue online.