Sonoma’s annual tree lighting expands into celebration of gratitude

Banners in the Sonoma Plaza announcing the Nov. 18 city gathering, to recognize first reponders. (Christian Kallen/Index-Tribune)


What if you threw a tree-lighting ceremony, and everyone came? The city of Sonoma is about to find out.

On Saturday, Nov. 18, the Plaza’s eight acres will twinkle with more than 100,000 lights, and its trees will be ornamented with hundreds of hearts – expressions of gratitude for the first responders who fought the fires, made by the citizens who’ve found themselves at a loss for the right words.

“The Love in the Air” appreciation event, timed to coincide with the fifth annual “Lighting of the Plaza” ceremony, marks an official turning point from October’s fires. It signals a pivot from triage to recovery, as the Valley comes together in collective acknowledgement that the crucible endured left it bruised but not broken.

There will be speeches, of course, and musical tributes from Transcendence Theatre Company and the Free Spirits Choir. Hot cider and chocolate, and cookies for the kids. Several of the food trucks that fed first responders as the wildfires raged will have dinner available for attendees to purchase, and all proceeds from the beer and wine sales, managed by the Native Sons of the Golden West, will be donated to the Redwood Credit Union Resilience Fund.

“While the city itself was fortunate to escape direct damage, it is important to come together with an official tribute ceremony to express appreciation to our emergency responders and all the amazing community and business volunteers that supported their efforts,” said City Manager Cathy Capriola.

Preparation for the event has been ongoing for weeks, with Capriola securing funding from the City Council. Announcement of the event’s $60,000 budget raised a few eyebrows, as some individuals, including firefighters, voiced objections. But, stress city officials, that number was a high-ceiling allocation from the Council. According to the latest update from city staff, “costs are expected to run under $5,000 for the community gathering event itself and $2,000 for the Heart Art project, excluding staff time.”

Another visual to look out for are the several vinyl banners that now hang from the light poles ringing the Plaza, which the city will reuse commemoratively in coming years. The banners, featuring an image of a heart rising from the Valley’s hills, were designed by Lisa Carlsson.

A city-sponsored community-wide art therapy project, dubbed “The Heart Art Project,” has allowed residents to make tangible artifacts of remembrance, hundreds of which will be displayed in the Plaza through Nov. 19. The Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, Community Center, and Art Escape all hosted “Heart Art” crafting sessions.

Individuals who were unable to attend those events were encouraged to participate in “Heart Art” nonetheless. “Feel free to display your heart in front of your home,” read the instructions on the city’s website, “or deliver your heart to Sonoma City Hall.” Submissions, due today, Nov. 17, must be weather resistant and at least 10 inches in size. “Put words, slogans, patterns, colors, graphics, drawings, pictures, or anything that truly represents your gratitude and love for our Sonoma Valley.”

Saturday’s civic ceremony is scheduled for 4 p.m., with the ceremonial lighting of the Plaza to follow at 5 p.m.

The Sonoma Tourism Improvement District funds the lighting of the Plaza and the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau organizes the annual event. The lights will remain lit until the end of December.

On Sunday, Nov. 19, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa will host a complimentary community pancake breakfast “in celebration of our local heroes” at the Plaza horseshoe, reads the Mission Inn’s press release. In the event of predicted rain, Sunday’s pancake breakfast will be held in the Pavilion tent at the Fairmont instead.

Though more than 400 homes were lost or damaged in the Valley, the toll could have been far worse. Beyond the standard appreciations voiced every November, Sonoma has an astounding bounty to give thanks for this year.

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